-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
cast: Radha Mitchell, Sean Bean, Laurie Holden, Deborah Kara Unger, and Alice Krige
director: Christophe Gans
130 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Pathé DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Silent Hill is perhaps one of the more spectacular examples of a film failing
at the box office despite having every possible reason for succeeding on paper. Directed
by Christophe Gans fresh from the success of
The Wolf and written by Oscar winning Pulp Fiction scribe Roger Avary,
Silent Hill even had a built-in fan base in the shape of millions of gamers.
However, when the film eventually limped onto cinema screens the reaction was one of
disinterest from the general public and bile from film critics. With the pre-release
hype and the negative reviews faded from our memories, Silent Hill's DVD release
offers the film a second chance of winning us over and maybe resurrecting what should
otherwise be a profitable franchise. So the issue facing us is whether the critics were
right in calling this film a stylish but empty husk or whether the gamers are right in
saying that this is a good film that was cruelly misunderstood by critics intolerant of
genre films and snobbish about videogame adaptations. As dull as it may sound, the truth
is that ultimately both groups are right... and wrong.
Childless couple Rose and Christopher Da Silva adopt a little girl named Sharon only
to discover that she has serious mental health problems. Prone to sleepwalking and crying
out the name of a ghost town near her orphanage, Sharon's tendency to stand on the edge
of cliffs has prompted doctors to want her institutionalised, but her mother Rose thinks
that the best way to solve her little girl's problems is to take her to Silent Hill in
the hope of confronting the source of her trauma. Running from her husband and a sexy
policewoman, Rose crashes her car on the outskirts of Silent Hill only to wake up finding
Sharon gone and ashes falling from the sky like snow. Soon a civil defence alarm goes off
and the town shifts and distorts from a creepy ashen ghost town into an industrialised
version of hell full of weird creatures including the beautifully designed but stupidly
named Pyramid Head, a seven foot giant with a pyramid for a head who trails a gigantic
sword around with him and wades through an ocean of giant cockroaches with human faces.
With help from the sexy policewoman, Rose manages to stay alive long enough to discover
the cause of Silent Hill's destruction in the actions of a bunch of religious fanatics.
Among the DVD extras for Brotherhood Of The Wolf is an interview with Gans in
which he unashamedly says that to him it is far more important to ensure that his camera
is focussed on an actor's face while they are talking than it is to ensure that the scene's
subtext and emotional impact are effectively portrayed. By saying this, Gans reveals himself
as being not so much an auteur as a technically competent director and Silent Hill
bears witness to this fact. Building wonderfully on the first game's aesthetics, Silent
Hill has a wonderfully apocalyptic feel to it, the town looks like an abandoned 1950s'
city, as if the people had been blown away by some Cold War era nuclear exchange that never
happened. The shift from purgatory to hell is accompanied by a baroquely beautiful wave of
decay as paint flakes off the walls and corridors twist and contort. The monsters are also
by and large well designed from Pyramid Head down to the twitching grey zombies that are
attracted by the light. Clearly, Gans knows how to manage a special effects team and the
work done here is certainly sterling stuff. Indeed, the film is almost worth seeing for
the atmosphere. The problem is with everything else...
Silent Hill is, to be blunt, one of the worst written films I have ever seen. The
dialogue is so stilted and repetitive that one almost wonders whether it wasn't a deliberate
choice by Avary to ape the poorly translated scripts of the games themselves. The characters
themselves are never anything more than one dimensional cardboard cut outs without any trace
of depth and many secondary characters (including the one played by the excellent Sean Bean,
this time affecting an American accent as awful as it is pointless) are kept hanging around
with nothing to do simply waiting to be used.
The plot itself is full of clichés and silliness such as evil children, religious
fanatics and worried mothers but, in truth, none of these serve to drive the plot as Silent
Hill is nothing more than a series of set pieces, right up until the last act where
characters virtually fall over each other to give pompous expository speeches. If one were
being generous one could compare the film to the post-narrative horror films of Dario Argento
(Deep Red) or Lucio Fulci (The House By The Cemetery), or indeed the ham-fisted
plot devices of the games ("you have found a key!") but the truth seems more likely
to be a simple lack of interest in telling an interesting story.
With such frightful dialogue, weak characterisation and clunky plotting, we are a million
miles away from the machinegun wit and over-lapping plotlines of Pulp Fiction.
However, the film's real failure is that it simply is not scary. By having Rose descend
into Hell almost as soon as she arrives in Silent Hill, Gans gives us the money shot far
too soon and, after that, the town's demons and ugliness lose their scariness, retaining
only their Boschian surrealist hideousness. Indeed, with the exception of the first sighting
of the coal miners, the film never so much as takes an interest in tension or suspense,
preferring instead to drown the audience in wave after wave of CGI ugliness. To be fair
to Gans, though, the Silent Hill games are not particularly good at horror either.
The horror genre for videogames actually bears little or no resemblance to the literary or
cinematographic horror genres. The latter two tend to be all about suspense and slowly
building towards a grand reveal when the true hideousness of the characters' plight becomes
apparent. However, videogames tend to last around 10 hours and the economics of the videogame
market mean that asking your players to wander around being a bit freaked out for 10 hours
before the monster turns up simply wouldn't work... people would get bored. So instead,
horror games tend to function more like thrillers or action films that borrow the visual
language or horror films resulting in games where you get to the good stuff almost immediately
and then spend 10 hours killing things and therein we see why both the critics and the fans
were right and wrong about this film.
Silent Hill is a film based upon a game and it suffers from Gans and Avary's decision
to stick closely to that source material. As a completely different form, videogames have
their own aesthetics, tempered in the demands placed upon designers by the need to be a
game and not just a story. Silent Hill's weak dialogue, characterisation and plotting
effectively translate a videogame's aesthetics to the big screen and thereby demonstrate the
extent to which videogames are a completely different medium to films. The critics were right
in panning this film as a wonderful technical achievement that is little more than an empty
husk and fans of the games are right in pointing out that this film is true to the source
material and that the film operates within the genre conventions of the games. However, the
film itself fails because I can think of no earthly reason why a film should satisfy the
genre demands of a videogame. There are some occasions where the demands of a genre get in
the way and Silent Hill is a perfect example of that.