The recently released horror movie “Silent Hill” came at the crest of a small media furor. Ever since the film’s announcement, the fans of the video game it was adapted from have created an avalanche of anticipation, surmounted by an advertising blitzkrieg launched by distributor Sony Pictures. Set reports were hopeful and Director Christophe Gans’ numerous and pompous interviews promised a film greater than “Citizen Kane” while swearing undying fealty to the video game’s legacy. All looked well, but in the days leading up to the film’s premiere Sony pulled all press junkets and screenings.
The question is: Does “Silent Hill” succeed? The answer is difficult to determine.
“Silent Hill” follows Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell), whose young daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) suffers from particularly violent sleepwalking fits. Despite the objections of her husband Christopher (Sean Bean), mother and daughter travel to Silent Hill, a West Virginia ghost town that seems to have some connection to Sharon. Once they arrive – alongside policewoman Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden) – the three become lost in the community’s foggy solitude, and find that it periodically shifts into a rusty, decrepit, monster-filled hell.
“Silent Hill” is not a horror film. There is only rarely a sense of danger, nothing ever jumps out at anyone and only a select few actually die. Rather, it follows the cinematic vein of David Cronenberg’s works, starkly painting an extremely disturbing adult fairy tale.
The film’s biggest assets are the monsters of “Silent Hill” and the town itself. Highlights include deformed nurses, undead children and an enormous man in a butcher’s smock and a triangular metal mask. The monsters are nothing short of brilliant in design and execution, combining “Hellraiser” sadomasochism, Freudian sexuality and all kinds of grotesque. The creatures are almost entirely constructed of uncanny makeup and prosthetics, giving them incredible presence unrivaled by the garishly artificial CGI creatures that define film today.
The film’s true hero is Production Designer Carol Spier, who has made “Silent Hill” the single greatest haunted house in history, from its misty, desolate streets to its corrupted, flaming, metallic bowels. Most of the film’s problems stem from screenwriting. Writer Roger Avary, who used religious tracts to such great effect in “Pulp Fiction,” here writes fanatics that sound like the witch hunters of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” The film’s pacing problems similarly stem from the mishandling of good ideas. The movie takes its time in the first half, leaving clues along the way, but it is not until a lengthy flashback halfway through the film that these clues are dissected and over-explained.
Like everything else in the movie, the performances are a mixed bag. Mitchell performs admirably in what is essentially a one-woman show. Holden’s performance sometimes hits with moments of pathos, but often looks more like a biker who got lost on the way to a Billy Idol concert while Alice Krige’s cult leader steers what is essentially a one-note villain role with elegance and emotion. Where the film unquestionably succeeds is as a video game adaptation. Combining elements from the first three video games, the movie takes considerable liberties with the game’s storylines while remaining strong to their spirit. Fans of the series will recognize rooms and buildings in the film that are actual reconstructions of areas from the games. Likewise, by following one character through area after area, with enemies, keys and clues abounding, “Silent Hill” creates a singularly unique fusion of movie watching and controller wielding.
Profoundly frustrating and considerably fascinating, “Silent Hill” is a film that is easy to admire, but difficult to recommend. At its best, it is one of the most bizarre, imaginative and lurid dreamscapes ever committed to film; at its worse, it is a nonsensical sleepwalk from set piece to set piece with only intermittent bursts of regrettable dialogue. Much like the town it’s named for, “Silent Hill” is filled with beautiful and terrible apparitions, but ultimately devoid of life.