Silent Hill

(2006)

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

If you’ve ever stumbled across a notorious critical and commercial bomb on cable and thought, Hey, this isn’t so bad, this is the column for you. Each month, we’ll examine a new failed film that’s worth a second look.

I had a nice conversation with seven or eight people coming down on the escalator after we all saw Silent Hill. They wanted me to explain it to them. I said I didn’t have a clue. — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

A few of the images are startling, but as Radha Mitchell (a good actress) wanders through a ghost town, searching for her lost daughter as though she was touring an abandoned movie set, Silent Hill is mostly paralyzing in its vagueness. — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

From first frame to last, not a second of the film has a grip on reality. Structured around a series of blackouts and gross-outs, it is one long free fall through icky surrealism and underlighted nightmares. It takes us to the sort of world where hell is round the corner, secret doors abound and faux-blond policewomen outfit themselves in skin-tight leather. — Nathan Lee, New York Times

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that all movies based on video games suck.

Sorry, I don’t mean to paraphrase, but I have the feeling that if most film critics had their way, that last bit would have been added to the Declaration of Independence. Of course, snarkiness aside, I will admit that most films based on video games do indeed, reek of a quick money grab with no thought given to artistic or even entertainment value. Unfortunately, this pigeonholing of an entire genre can lead to good films being unfairly thought of as the cinematic equivalent of something you find on the sidewalk when the spring thaw melts away several months worth of snow.

Silent Hill actually did decent business when factoring in the worldwide numbers, so it technically doesn’t meet all of the requirements of a traditional Movie Defender write up, but it did take a whipping from the critics, currently sitting at a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. At the same time, its IMDB user rating is a respectable 6.5. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the first time that a film is embraced by the public while being trashed by the critical community. And, as I’ve often pointed out, in most of those cases, the critics are right (yes, I realize this makes me sound like a snob, but I can live with it). But Silent Hill is one of those rare cases where the general moviegoing public is right and critics missed the boat.

Rose (Radha Mitchell) and Christopher (Sean Bean) are parents to an adopted daughter named Sharon (Jodelle Ferland). Sharon has the bad habit of sleepwalking and crying out, “Silent Hill!” in hysterical fits during these sleepwalking episodes. Determined to get to the bottom of the apparent psychological trauma that causes her daughter’s problems, Rose does some research to find that Silent Hill is a deserted town in West Virginia. It seems it was a coal-mining community that suffered a terrible tragedy when a fire started in the mines underneath the town, killing many of the residents. Knowing nothing about Sharon’s life before the adoption, Rose guesses that she must have some connection to the town and decides to take her there as a form of therapy. She does this over Christopher’s wishes, leaving without telling him.

Admittedly, so far, so cheesy. The plot setup plays like clichés from any number of bad horror films and Rose comes off as a terrible mother attempting some form of shock therapy for her daughter instead of getting her professional help. But then director Christophe Gans and writer Roger Avary start piling on the weird and outright freakish imagery and twists.

A motorcycle cop named Cybil (Laurie Holden) tries to pull Rose over. When Rose floors it for the offramp to Silent Hill, Cybil gives chase and finds herself trapped in the abandoned town with Rose, both of them searching for the suddenly missing Sharon. As they drift through the deserted town, ash falling from the sky, apparently from the coal fires that still burn underground, they encounter any number of terrifying and grotesque creatures and deformed people that attack through such varied means as spitting acid and tearing people’s skin from their bodies. In the midst of this cavalcade of horrors, they find a religious cult living in the town that call people they don’t understand witches and that may be the key to understanding the mystery of Sharon’s connection to Silent Hill.

Once the plot of the film kicks into high gear, I was surprised at how much the film had snuck up on me. The dialogue may be stiff and unnatural, but the pacing and imagery lend themselves to a surprising amount of suspense that Gans brilliantly exploits. By basically unmooring the film from any semblance of reality, Gans is able to steer audience expectations away from the routine mainstream movie world to an insane land where horrible things happen to well-meaning people. That twist in itself wouldn’t be so unusual, but Gans shows a complete lack of sympathy for the audience by never allowing the camera to turn away as these terrible things happen. The resulting horror the audience feels is made that much more powerful.

If there is a glaring problem with the film (beyond Avary’s stilted dialogue), it’s in a subplot that finds Christopher searching for Rose and Sharon. Cutting to his search every fifteen minutes or so, it feels as though Gans is following the orders of producers who want every penny of the money that they spent on casting Sean Bean to translate into extra screen time. I have nothing against Sean Bean and find him to be a solid, reliable actor, but Christopher’s subplot is unneeded. The only purpose it serves is to show more clearly that Rose and Sharon are in some sort of alternate dimension, since his explorations of Silent Hill show a markedly different town — one still deserted, but not filtered through falling ash and cut off from the outside world. But even that nugget of information feels like over-explanation. At just over two hours, the film does feel a bit long. Cutting most of this subplot would have tightened up the running time and increased the tension in the main plot.

But really, that is a minor complaint when it comes to a horror film that actually horrifies. I haven’t played the game upon which Silent Hill is based, so I don’t know how many of the truly freaky, scary creatures and plot twists have been made up by the Gans and Avary, and what was carried over from the game. I do know that they made my skin crawl, which is the mark of a good filmmaker, especially when it comes to upsetting a jaded horror fan like myself. By the time that the film’s climax becomes a bloody, gory, over-the-top exercise in grand guignol that I imagine is what The Crucible would look like if directed by Clive Barker, my jaw was hanging open in shock at the audacity of what Gans pulled off.

I don’t wish to mislead anyone, Silent Hill is not a perfect movie. There’s the problems I had with the Christopher subplot and the dialogue. But there’s also the fact that Gans is never able to completely cover up the film’s video game origins. The plot moves forward as a series of tasks that must be overcome and mysteries that have to be unraveled with conveniently placed clues.

But the sense of suffocating horror and malevolence that invades every frame is a stunning achievement. I’m willing to overlook some flaws to feel something resembling the type of fear I used to have when watching horror movies as a child. Essentially, that’s what Silent Hill boils down to. It’s the type of extreme vision you expected from those horror films you were never allowed to watch as a child. You can argue with the plot, but you can’t argue with the nerves it touches.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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