Monday, August 28, 2006

Silent Hill (2006)

Among the many trends that have been picked up by Hollywood in recent years, one of the most controversial has been the idea of movies based on popular video games. Unfortunately but probably deservedly, the genre has earned little if any respect thanks to many adaptations that are thoroughly disappointing if not insulting to fans of the source material. While some find financial success, many (if not all) are derided by critics and gamers. I mean, the last video game movie that I can recall getting any kind of props was the first Mortal Kombat movie, and that was back in 1995.

In recent years, many gamers have turned their noses up at game-to-film translations such as Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil movies while cursing the name of Uwe Boll, but Brotherhood of the Wolf director Christophe Gans and Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avery may have actually made a movie that goes against the "video game movies suck" stereotype with his adaptation of Silent Hill. Based on the series of survival horror games produced by Konami, Silent Hill serves notice that movies inspired by video games could actually be good.

Sharon Da Silva (Jodelle Ferland) is a troubled little girl. Plagued by reoccurring and uncontrollable incidents of sleepwalking and night terrors that she retains no memory of afterwards, her adoptive parents, Rose (Radha Mitchell) and Christopher (Sean Bean), draw ever more worried by Sharon's repeated cries of "Home! Home! Silent Hill!" during these night terrors. After one particularly harrowing occurrence in which Sharon nearly sleepwalks right off a cliff, Rose and Christopher are both in agreement that their daughter is in need of some serious help.

While Christopher naturally believes that some therapy and a little medication might be in Sharon's best interests, Rose has a far different idea of what to do: visit Silent Hill. The small West Virginia hamlet is nothing more than a dangerous ghost town thanks to the underground coal mine fires that have burned beneath it for decades, but despite this and her husband's desperate pleas to stay away, Rose takes Sharon on a road trip to Silent Hill with the hope that that being there will jog her memory and explain her nightly cries for a town that has been abandoned for thirty years.

Day turns into night, and Rose pulls into a gas station in the neighboring town of Brahams to fill up. As she gets out, she notices that the happy pictures Sharon had been drawing earlier have been altered into more morbid pictures with heavy emphasis on people screaming and the color black. Sharon wakes up from her nap and Rose asks her about the changes, which Sharon denies with frightened confusion. Her scared outburst draws suspicion from nearby motorcycle cop Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden), who follows them as they leave.

Cybil pulls the Da Silvas over a few miles down the road, but Rose hits the gas pedal as soon as she spots a sign pointing in Silent Hill's direction. Rose tears through a barricaded fence blocking the street, and speeds through the winding mountain road with Cybil hot on her heels. However, Rose doesn't make it far before a young girl darts out into the road ahead. Rose swerves to avoid her, spinning out of control and knocking herself unconscious.

She awakens the next morning, only to discover that Sharon has disappeared without a trace. Unable to get her car to start, she gets out and walks into Silent Hill. The abandoned village is disconcerting enough, but it isn't helped by the all-encompassing thick fog and the ash fluttering down from the sky like snow. Unsettling surroundings or not, Rose runs through the town's streets, calling out for her missing daughter.

She eventually sees the girl she narrowly missed before, discovering that she bears an uncanny resemblance to Sharon. Rose gives chase and follows her down a stairwell, but stops dead in her tracks when an air raid siren sounds and a wave of darkness transforms the town into a rusted, rotting shell. As she explores the altered terrain, she is swarmed by what appear to be shrieking, hideously deformed children.

Rose passes out as they begin to overwhelm her, and she awakens back in the foggy Silent Hill she arrived in earlier. Shaken up but determined, she collects her bearings and resumes her search for Sharon. She returns to the streets and reaches the edge of town, which is separated from the rest of the world by an immense chasm. Rose quickly finds herself accosted by Dahlia Gillespie (Deborah Kara Unger), a haggard-looking social pariah who delivers cryptic warnings about the town. Rose inquires about Sharon, producing a picture of her that sends Dahlia into a frenzy.

Rose retreats and heads back to her car to regroup, but unexpectedly encounters Cybil. The upset police officer handcuffs her and begins leading her back to Brahams, but another chasm has appeared in front of them, stranding them in Silent Hill. Their only sanctuary from the various unspeakable creatures lurking in Silent Hill's shadows is the church, which is called home by a cult of puritanical fanatics. Though the cult's members would just as soon burn the two strangers at the stake for no good reason other than being outsiders, their leader Christabella (Alice Krige) stops them.

Rose and Cybil explain their situation, and Christabella proposes that the demon that lives in the basement of the town hospital may help them find Sharon, though she doesn't expect them to encounter the demon and survive. This leads us into our third act, where we fall deeper into the terrors that have besieged Silent Hill, and we learn how the mystery of Sharon's disappearance is connected to the tragic fate of Dahlia's daughter Alessa (Jodelle Ferland in a dual role).

While I have yet to actually play any of the games in the series at the time of this review, the knowledge I do have of the franchise makes me believe that Silent Hill is quite possibly the most faithful game-to-film translation there is. As it stands currently, it may also be the closest we'll get to seeing the imaginations of H.P. Lovecraft and David Lynch blended together in a mainstream Hollywood film.

Unfortunately, the reaction among gamers was decidedly mixed, while professional critics had no qualms ripping the movie to shreds. Roger Avery's script drew the majority of the critical ire, but maybe its detractors missed the point. I will admit that the dialogue seems trite or stilted at times, and there is perhaps an overbearing amount of exposition, but in keeping Silent Hill close to its survival horror roots, perhaps this was Avery's intent from the beginning.

However, the movie has too much exposition for its own good, spending too much time talking and appealing to fanboys than making itself accessible to the widest possible audience. We don't need to know every little detail about Silent Hill's history in one movie. Worry about making this one a hit, then give away a little more if there's a sequel. I'm also a little flummoxed regarding the ending of the movie. The coda is almost indecipherably vague, and while it may be another "wink-wink" moment to fans of the games, it will just leave the uninitiated feeling confused or even a little gypped.

It also seems to me like one would be quite hard-pressed to find a traditional "good vs. evil" aspect in Silent Hill. The cult murders innocents under the guise of cleansing what they believe to be evil, Alessa's soul burns with a hatred for seemingly every living thing in Silent Hill's city limits, while Rose remains morally ambiguous for much of the movie. Really, it's not so much good vs. evil, as it is evil compounding evil.

And while the main focus of the film is Rose's search for Sharon, we are also given a concurrent subplot in which Christopher delves deeper into Silent Hill's horrific past while running afoul of Brahams detective Thomas Gucci (played by Kim Coates), who prefers the past staying buried. This subplot seems somewhat out of place and only pulls the viewer out of any sort of groove that the scenes in Silent Hill had been trying to maintain.

This subplot was supposedly added at the behest of the studio, who complained that the script had no men in it; this could be why the subplot feels tacked on and superfluous. With a little re-writing and some creative editing, the movie perhaps could have been reined in at a brisk and more palatable 105 minutes max.

So the writing might need a little polishing, but it's really secondary to the movie's motivation and intent. The driving force behind Silent Hill is its desire to absolutely screw with the head of the entire audience. It's chock full of mind-bending visuals, terrifying and intimidating monsters with a thirst for carnage and violence, and sound design that would make me wet my pants if I heard it in a haunted house. Christophe Gans's direction is quite wonderful.

Gans makes wonderful use of the cinematography of Dan Laustsen and the production design of Carol Spier to give us one of the most aesthetically scary horror films in recent memory. When combined with Patrick Tatopoulos's creature designs and Paul Jones's makeup, Gans makes sure everyone knows the doors of Hell are wide open and we're all invited. His direction could also even direct one to argue that Silent Hill is to video game movies what Robert Rodriguez's Sin City was to comic book movies, as the entire film plays out as if it were a live-action video game. There's the action, the moments of plot advancement that slow things down to give viewers a break, and even a moment akin to a video game loading screen.

But in a movie such as this, the acting is just as important as the behind-the-scenes aspect. And luckily for Silent Hill, the cast is strong. Radha Mitchell, who you may recognize from smaller movies like Pitch Black and Finding Neverland, is great here, playing the "mother searching for daughter" role with a dedication that makes it believable.

Meanwhile, Sean Bean's talent is dreadfully wasted in his poorly-done subplot. While I certainly will not argue with filmmakers casting the very talented Bean for any role in any movie, he would have been better off had either the Rose or Christabella roles been rewritten as male characters for him. Laurie Holden is entertaining and engaging as Cybil, while Kim Coates is acceptable if not forgettable as Officer Gucci. Tanya Allen was okay in her bit part as ill-fated cult member Anna, but her character annoyed me to the point that any performance probably couldn't have saved it.

Perhaps the best performances in the movie were from the three most important parts of Silent Hill's shadow world: Deborah Kara Unger, Alice Krige, and Jodelle Ferland. Though her role seems relatively minor, Unger plays Dahlia with intense conviction, giving the character a certain enigmatic charisma that makes her much more interesting to follow. Krige, as Christabella, gives the character an interesting spin as she alternates between being deceptively welcoming, patronizing, and manipulative and cold-blooded. It's as if Krige's "Borg Queen" character from Star Trek: First Contact had become David Koresh.

Though of all the cast members, the most noteworthy was Ferland. Only ten years old when the movie was filmed, Ferland is both charmingly sweet as Sharon and off-putting as Alessa. One moment in particular really stands out for me. Shortly prior to the climax, Alessa proclaims, "Now is the end of days, and I am the reaper." In the movie's promotional advertising, her voice when speaking the line is deep and authoritative. However, in the actual film, the line is delivered in Ferland's normal speaking voice.

This works in the movie's favor, as Ferland's wonderful delivery makes the line far more effective. If done in a booming voice that sounds like it should be coming out of Godzilla, the moment would have been scary enough. But personally, I thought the line was a lot more disturbing when spoken with Ferland's regular voice. It speaks highly of Ferland's acting ability, because with that one line, Alessa transforms from merely an unsettling young girl into pure malevolence in the shape of a 10-year-old child.

The score performed by Jeff Danna is also exceptionally notable. His score directly replicates the music composed by Akira Yamaoka for the four Silent Hill games, which lends a certain familiarity for fans while giving the film an intense auditory experience that is every bit as scary as what we see. The movie's costume design even shows signs of brilliance, evidenced by the subtle changes in Rose's clothes. Her outfit begins as a light gray, but as Rose is pulled deeper into Silent Hill's nightmarish world, it slightly changes until it becomes blood red by the time the credits roll. The differences in color are quite subtle, to the point that the changes don't even seem obvious until the movie's climax.

Gans and Avery's depiction of Silent Hill is of a town sitting atop a coal mine fire that has been burning for decades, which seems to be based upon the coal fires that continue to burn beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania. (In fact, the movie was briefly – and jokingly – renamed "Centralia" during pre-production.) Though while the coal fires burning beneath Silent Hill's streets may be grounded in some form of reality, everything else draws from a fantasy world that is both hellish and somehow oddly gorgeous in a gothic sort of way. Despite its flaws, I thought Silent Hill was one of the scarier films to come along the pike for the last couple of years, as well as being one big step forward in proving that movies based on video games can actually be good. For that, it earns three and a half stars from yours truly.

Final Rating: ***½