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Movie Review: Silent Hill

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Silent Hill 2006 International, Christophe Gans.

Silent Hill, adapted from the video game of the same title by French director Christophe Gans (The Brotherhood of the Wolf) is not a masterpiece, but I think that the outrage being leveled at it by the critical community (it scores a paltry 25% at Rotten Tomatoes) is unwarranted. Silent Hill is as interesting as it is imperfect, both as a horror film and as the latest (arguably most successful) attempt to marry the ever-expanding universe of video games to the silver screen.

The film opens with nine year-old Sharon Da Silva (Jodelle Ferland) sleepwalking across a highway. Her parents Rose (Radha Mitchell) and Christopher (Sean Bean) find her teetering at the edge of a cliff, over which a neon cross hovers in the distance, screaming “Silent Hill! Silent Hill!” We briefly see the scene through Sharon’s eyes: the cliff leads downward into a blazing inferno.

Rose arbitrarily decides that the only thing to do is to find this Silent Hill which, as it happens, is the name of a West Virginia town (modeled after Centralia, PA) abandoned since 1974 after all of its inhabitants were killed in a mining disaster. So she sets off with Sharon, in the middle of the night no less, against her husband’s advice and the sinister warnings of a local diner waitress. She’s pulled over by a traffic cop (Laurie Holden) but speeds off into the town where an apparition that bears a striking resemblance to Sharon causes her to veer off the road. She hits her head on the steering wheel and passes out; when she comes to again, Sharon is gone.

The next part of the film unfolds with the logic of dreams and video games. Rose, joined by the cop, wanders about the town trying to solve the mysteries of Sharon’s whereabouts and the town’s demise. These scenes have an ethereal beauty, alternating between daytime, in which ash falls over Silent Hill like snow, and the intermittent horrors of an artificial night, heralded by sirens, in which the town is transformed into a demon-populated hell.

This portion of the film has been criticized as illogical, but it makes sense to an audience raised on video games. The scene in which Rose reaches into the mouth of a corpse to pull out a tile bearing the name of a hotel, for instance, mimics the act of looking for clues in an adventure game. These games are by their very nature “illogical” because characters are motivated by a logic specific to the game that doesn’t necessarily make sense when transposed onto real life. In an adventure game clues allow the player to advance through the narrative, and here they permit Rose to move forward through the plot.

Critics have also focused on the scene late in the film in which Rose enters a hospital room and the screen abruptly, shockingly fades to white. Sharon’s doppelgänger Alessa (also Jodelle Ferland) congratulates Rose in voiceover for successfully “following her clues” to get to this far. An extended sequence, marked by grainy footage and bits of leader, explains the film’s back story. This scene struck many critics as out of place, coming so late in the film, but gamers are familiar with exposition, in the form of a cutscene, being used as a reward for successfully navigating a portion of the game.

Sometimes Silent Hill‘s attempts to mix the aesthetics of gaming and movies don’t work, such as the unnecessarily long scene in which Rose memorizes a map of the hospital basement. Ocassionally watching Silent Hill feels like watching someone else play a video game, with the attendant feelings of helplessness and boredom. Gans is to be commended, though, for trying to imbue his film with spirit of the material he’s adapting.

The latter part of Silent Hill explodes with the fury of an arthouse horror flick. A bloodbath set in a church, it melds the anti-Catholic intensity of Luis Buñuel with imagery reminiscent of Frida Kahlo. It also serves as a cathartic release for the tension created by the film’s sinister invocation of religious motifs. Only a horror film can reduce an entire universe of societal unease into a single scene of orgiastic violence, and in this regard at least Silent Hill must rank as one of the genre’s most memorable entries.

By so closely associating the demon child Alessa with the fundamentalist religion of Silent Hill’s ghostly denizens, Silent Hill also points the way towards understanding horror’s fascination with creepy children (The Ring, The Shining). Fear is an emotional response to the unknown, and in many Christian faiths children are regarded as somehow closer to heaven and to God. The ultimate mystery, and therefore the ultimate horror, might be the fear of what we’ve forgotten.

Like a video game, and like many experimental films, Silent Hill forces us to adapt to its world, instead of trying to adapt itself to ours. It can be illogical and infuriating, but the promise is that by learning to exist in the world of the film we might learn a bit more about living in our own. Silent Hill doesn’t entirely deliver on this promise, but it is an interesting attempt. In many circles video games are regarded as an ascendant art form, the movies one in decline. In trying to marry the two, Christophe Gans teaches us something about the ways each work, and as such Silent Hill is a film worthy of consideration and study.

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About A. Horbal

  • getitstraight

    you wrote: anti-Catholic intensity of Pier Paolo Pasolini WRONG

    is that why he made the most prized catholic movie of all time? get your facts straight.

  • http://www.andyhorbal.blogspot.com/ A. Horbal

    Do you mean The Gospel According to Saint Matthew?

  • Duane

    Haven’t seen the movie, haven’t played the game. But that was a fascinating review. I have also wondered why creepy kids in movies are so effectively scary. Interesting points also about trying to maintain logical consistency in a movie where the story is illogical to begin with. Most, if not all, horror movies ask us to abandon our common sense and logic for a couple of hours.

  • Rodney Welch

    Horbal — I can’t speak for getitstraight, but he does raise a question as to why you say “anti-Catholic” when it comes to Pasolini. Were you possibly thinking of Bunuel?

  • http://www.andyhorbal.blogspot.com/ A. Horbal

    Well, clearly it has to change if it’s raising this many questions.

    I was thinking specifically of The Gospel of Saint Matthew, which I’ve always considered something of a slap in the face to the aristocracy of the Vatican. By stripping the Gospel of Matthew down to its bare essentials, Pasolini is reclaiming Christ for the poor, for the political. The minimalism of this film stands in stark contrast to the pomp and circumstance of Catholic ritual.

    The excess common to many of his other films is a rebuke to the strict, formal customs of the Catholic country in which he lived and worked. There’s an anger and intensity directed at the leaders of the church that expected the people to follow these rules, but didn’t follow them themselves. His films both celebrate life and lampoon those who would presume to dictate how it should be lived.

    For better or for worse, that’s what I was thinking. Buñuel is probably a much better, much more intelligible choice. Thanks!

  • congfused

    im so lost when did the mom and the daughter actually die?