What we have here is a masterpiece of surrealistic survival horror, or another attempt at intelligent horror that falls under the weight of its own pretensions. A third option could put it in between the two extremes; it is up to you to decide. I’ve made my decision, although I am not sure I will be able to adequately defend my position. Defend – interesting choice of words, and one I chose on purpose.
Occasionally, a film comes around that connects with you on a level that sucks you in and traps you with a malicious intent. That intent is to make you like it beyond all reason. You may realize you are watching something that is somewhat less than good, but you are helpless in your enjoyment of said work. A recent example of a film’s effect on me is Ultraviolet. Now, more to the point, another film has affected me in a similar, but far less pronounced manner.
Silent Hill is a film that eschews logic in favor of atmosphere, a film that sets out to put you into a nightmare. When you’re trapped in a nightmare, logic has no place. I am aware that this movie was inspired by/based on a videogame series, but I claim ignorance of the source. As an adaptation, I am ill-prepared to comment, but that doesn’t stop me from having some thoughts!
The film centers on Rose and her adopted daughter, Sharon. We learn that Sharon is sick with some unknown illness. She has a tendency to sleepwalk and talk about Silent Hill. It seems the key to her illness lies within the confines of the town, long since abandoned after a fire burned through it. Rose sneaks off with Sharon, leaving behind a rather upset husband, Chris.
The nightmare begins when Rose, with daughter in tow, turns off the main road and enters Silent Hill. The town is realized in all the shades of grey you can imagine; there is a layer of ash constantly falling, like a soft snow on the town. After a car crash, Sharon disappears. Rose sets out with a single-minded determination to find her. Along the way, she is joined by a cop who does not quite understand the gravity of the situation. I do not wish to continue with too much more description. Part of the joy I derived was watching as everything unfolded before me.
The town is incredible, a completely insulated nightmare. In this world, anything can and does happen with no explanation required. Sure, there is a plot at work here, and the exposition is at times clunky and not exactly clear, but it is always interesting. More interesting is the world of Silent Hill.
The greys pulse with life, strange things happen — horrible, horrifying things. This movie does not rely on the jump scare; rather we are faced with something much more terrifying. Unexplainable evil lurks in the darkness. Rose runs around town doing a lot of things any rational person would not do, but this just adds to the effectiveness of the nightmare. Things move out of the corner of your eye, drawing your attention away from the real danger.
The trailers have given a glimpse of what you can expect to find: statuesque nurses with blades at the ready; strange, pod-like people; burned children; giant bugs, and Pyramid-head. I don’t know what else to call the guy, although I believe that is how the game character is referred to. He has a couple of big scenes and, boy, are they impressive; what a wonderfully designed bad guy.
Director Christophe Gans has an absolutely wonderful visual style. Combining his style with that of Dan Laustsen, the director of photography, gives the movie a unique and intriguing look. Gans has delivered a film of vision and ambition. Silent Hill wears its ambition on its sleeve, and that may be a bit off-putting, but it is a great step forward for big screen horror. That brings me to the biggest pitfall — the script. Roger Avary has written a script that has a lot of ground to cover. It does the big stuff well, but falls short in many of the smaller scenes of character interaction. Some of the things that the actors are called upon to say come across as a bit silly, unintentionally comic. The dialog is in an over stylized form, or under stylized if you prefer; in either case, it seems unnatural, clunky, and out of place. A few more rewrites combined with what’s already here, and this film would jump up a few notches.
That leads me to the effects work, which is really good. There is very little CG work, a refreshing switch. The creatures are some real nasty pieces of work designed by Patrick Tatopoulos. They are creepy, dangerous, scary, and most importantly, real. There is a big difference between watching a computer effect and something that is really there. When done well, the real thing is much scarier.
The acting varies from poor to good with plenty of in between. Radha Mitchell stars as Rose. Sadly, the character is forced to do some silly things, but she does a great job during her many scenes of creepy peril. Sean Bean plays her husband, Christopher, and is solid as usual. The worst would have to be Laurie Holden as our intrepid cop. There is something that just doesn’t quite ring true with her.
On the other side, there are a pair of memorable performances from actresses that take their characters to the precipice of the absurd and make it work. First is Deborah Kara Unger as Dahlia, the outcast mother of the demon (that was a mouthful!). She holds much knowledge, but is considered to be a sinner not worthy of being heard. The second is Alice Krige as the religious zealot Christabella. She leads the townsfolk on their cleansing rampages to punish the sin, not the sinner (nope, you read that right). Finally there is a performance that seems to have a multiple personality disorder — Jodelle Ferland as Sharon. Her performance early on is awful. Her Sharon was annoying and felt like a child trying to play a child, but later on, when a different nature is revealed, she is as creepy as anything in the movie, and there are some pretty darn creepy things.
Another thing that is worth mentioning is the music. It is not your standard score, nor is it a collection of popular music. The original music covers a lot of ground, from light piano and violin compositions to a tapestry of industrial noises, to an almost hip-hop style beat. All of these sound styles are used effectively in the scenes where they are needed. They never feel out of place and add a little flavor to the piece.
Despite the numerous lines of laughable dialog and some bad acting, this movie grabbed me by the throat and had me on the edge of my seat for the entire film. Each time the siren went off and the screen went black, I got a little edgier, anticipating some new nasties to appear. The barebones plot may be easily plucked, the explanation is a little tougher, and as impenetrable as it is, it is completely satisfying.
It is nice to see a horror film with such ambition, an attempt to show us something new and different. It is not another remake, nor is it a torture film or a roller coaster of jump scares. Rather, it creates an atmosphere and uses that as a tool to dig into the viewer’s psyche.
Bottom line. Not completely effective, but it was enough to win me over and take me on the journey through a mother’s nightmare. A wonderfully eerie visual style leads the way. I urge you to take a trip to Silent Hill. Perhaps you will find it as intriguing as I did.