Monday, January 08, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Silent Hill (2006)

This isn't what I was expecting...

That it is based on a popular video game is ultimately immaterial. For Silent Hill (2006) is one of the strangest, most gorgeously filmed, most visually dazzling horror movies I've seen in a long, long time. Taking into account the long and generally piss-poor history of "interactive" entertainment on film (Tomb Raider and Resident Evil, j'accuse.), I expected this film to be a brainless actioner. I was wrong.

Instead, director Christophe Gans has fashioned a difficult, unsettling masterpiece. He's not out for easy thrills. Indeed, he's taken his good sweet time fashioning this narrative (it runs a lugubrious two hours-and-five minutes), which is, perhaps, our first indicator it's not intended to be a cheap-skate knock-off of a popular game.

Nope, Gan has fashioned a film that I can only describe as a Homerian-style Stygian odyssey. The aura is literary and metaphysical...not popcorn philosophy and New Age treacle. In simple terms, Silent Hill is an Orpheus story about a terrified, traumatized mother, Rose (Pitch Black's Radha Mitchell) who visits a ghost town in West Virginia in hopes of finding out what demons (literally...) vex her vaguely-autistic daughter, Sharon.

To save Sharon, Rose descends into a Tartarus-like underworld where she encounters witches, zombies, ghoulish soldiers dressed as miners, and an assortment of creepy-crawlies that would make anyone's skin crawl. Interestingly, these ghoulish creations (and the environs around them in the town...) seem to be an externalization of a terrible, collective sin. Think of The Cell...only a hell of a lot better.

Honestly, I don't know that I've ever seen a sustained descent into Hell put to celluloid so skillfully and in such unsettling, dedicated fashion. I'm not usually a fan of CGI in horror because it tends to take me out of the moment. I like my horror organic, not mechanical, and I don't think computers really understand "flesh" (just ask Brundlefly...), but digital technology works in spades here, particularly in one of the final images: that of Rose being forced to run a gauntlet of faceless, lurching nurses, all armed with scalpels...swinging at her. There's something mythological and primordial about these macabre juggernauts, just waiting for the right moment to strike.

There is only very minimal dialogue in Silent Hill. What dialogue exists seems to carry us in long, winding, half-conscious circles. Long stretches go by wherein the audience is in total silence with the main characters, and thus Silent Hill remembers that film is a visual art form first and foremost. Perhaps in a nod to the video game arena, the viewer spends much time exploring basements, hotels, and a school named Midwich (in a nod to Village of the Damned's source material, The Midwich Cuckoos).

Accordingly - given this paucity of words - the movie is laden with gorgeous, unforgettable imagery. You can detect almost literally from the first shots that Gan has attempted to vet his story with pictures first and foremost. There's an idyllic opening after the credits, for instance. The scene is set under a tree - in a wide open field - and it is an effective counterpoint to the nightmarish imagery of the prologue. The calm after and preceding storms, as it were.

Shortly thereafter, when in search of Silent Hill, the so-called "Tainted Town," Gan's camera adopts an extreme high angle as Rose's jeep navigates a winding road by pitch black night. The illumination from her headlights is the only source of light for dozens of miles and the road is bracketed by foreboding, ominous woods on both sides. Again, the impression is clearly of a descent into the underworld. The shot perfectly expresses this notion.

Likewise, late in the film's action, an elevator takes a one way trip down to the bowels of the Lake of Fire, and the shot is impressively staged and subconsciously adroit. It couldn't have been accomplished without CGI, at least not on this scale...and it's stunning. Again, this is no roller coaster ride (like the CGI-laden Star Wars prequels, which I enjoy...), but rather a contemplative, moody piece that marshals CG to send an audience straight to Hell. It's worth the trip, actually.

In horror movies, we've got Hellbound. In literature we've got Dante. In myth, we've got Orpheus. These are all examples of a hero's "journey" into the realm of Hades, and Silent Hill is - in visual terms - a similar tour of Hell. The town itself alternates between two disparate realities. There is the town as it exists after the fire (which occurred thirty years ago, in November 1974) and where ashes continually fall from the sky like snowflakes (a beautiful and haunting image). And then there's the "dark" interval, when a fire siren sounds ominously, and the skies turn black. It is in this world that the monsters come out, a fearsome personification of death: a gaggle of crispy critters and the like. They move all herky-jerky and fast (like The Ring), but they are still oddly terrifying, these phantasms from a hell dimension.

Speaking of The Ring, there is a similar - and simple - core story at the crux of Silent Hill. A little girl has been wronged by a community of superstitious zealots, and her vengeance is strong that destroys a town and its populace. Yet, Silent Hill takes this story in a different direction than one might expect. The Ring concerned the ability of the mass media (through VHS, for instance...) to transmit horror simultaneously to millions; whereas Silent Hill is implicitly about the psychological conflict that arises in a child who has been abused by adults she trusted.

Alessa Gillespie is the girl's name, and she was burned as a witch in the town of Silent hill all those years ago. She survived after a fashion, but splintered her psyche. She sent her "good" half or personality to Rose as an adopted daughter, Sharon. The demon side, Alessa, stayed behind in Silent Hill hell to torment her abusers. This concept of "doubling" keeps arising in the film. It's the leitmotif, if you will. There's the dual nature - the twin realities - of Silent Hill itself (light and dark intervals), and there are two contrasting mother figures, one strong and dedicated (Rose) and one weak and confused (Alessa's mother, Dahlia). But more important is the manner in which this doubling reflects the experiences of a so-called abused child.

Unlike The Ring, Silent Hill clearly views Alessa/Sharon in terms of being both the story's hero and villain; protagonist and antagonist, the victim and the victimizer. According to my wife, Kathryn (a psychotherapist), this is indeed the self-same way many abuse victims view themselves. They feel guilty; like there was cause for the abuse; but also angry - because the abuse was wrong. They feel simultaneously that they deserved it and that they didn't deserve it. Even the title of the film, Silent Hill, plays into this element of the narrative, since many abuse victims suffer their guilt in "silence," in a disassociated sense of reality. One, like the light interval, is a place where - on the surface - everything appears okay. The other, like the dark interval, is that place where the ghosts of abuses from the past take form.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the cycle of abuse was caused, we learn in Silent Hill, by religious fundamentalism. The hierarchical structure of fundamentalism is such that authority can't be questioned. Or at least not easily. And yet absolute power corrupts absolutely, as we've seen with Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and other "moral" religious leaders. They've all had deep character flaws that were only uncovered after a long, long time in "silence" and secret. The slavish devotion to authority, the non-questioning (take it on faith...) atmosphere of fundamentalism also allows predators to act on the sheep - children and women - in secret.

In a sense, that's the central and overriding metaphor of Silent Hill. Alessa was destroyed as a "witch" by the leader of a zealous, puritanical religious sect (led by Borg Queen Alice Krige...) in Silent Hill, and it is that leader and her followers who are viewed as the real monsters here, not Alessa and her hellish demons. Dueling Moms have become something of a cliche in the horror genre, ever since Aliens ("Get Away From Her, You Bitch!"), but this film is legitimately about a mom who would go to Hell and back to save her child. "Mother is God in a child's eyes," is a line of dialogue we hear a few times in the film, and it's interesting. Alessa - in her barbed-wire, fire-and-brimstone wrath, spares her mother, Dahlia. Even though she permitted the "abuse. Why? Because Mother is God in a child's eyes.

It's been a long time since I've seen a horror film so open to various schools of criticism. You can judge Silent Hill, I suppose, on how it translates the aesthetics of interactive entertainment (video games) to film. You can also gaze at it as the latest twist on a heroic, Orphean journey into the Underworld. You may care to delve deeply into the psychology of the film, which I submit concerns the abuse victim's "double vision" and feelings of disassociation. You can even study this horror in terms of archetypal female roles. We're long past the "final girl" phase here, and it is significant that every character in the film, from Rose and Sharon to Dahlia and Christabella (Krige) to Laurie Holden's cop, female. And that male authority, represented by Kim Coates and Sean Bean, is virtually impotent. Almost an afterthought.

Finally, however, what may qualify Silent Hill for greatness in the genre is a moody closing interlude, a coda that could be interpreted in half-a-dozen ways. It is an ambiguously configured moment of deep melancholy and ominous foreboding. A family reunion that should be joyous turns ambivalent...sour. Another emotional disconnect is forged; an indicator perhaps, that the cycle of abuse continues. That the darkness is not confined to Silent Hill, to that tainted town. The "double" layers of reality continue.

Someone pinch me, because I almost can't believe this movie exists. Silent Hill is a great horror movie. And it's rated R, not PG-13. Not because it is over-the-top gory (it isn't...), but because what lurks beneath the surface is so disturbing, so unsettling. I think this movie bombed at the box office and I can see why. It's no easy sell to the audience that enjoys The Fantastic Four. Instead, Silent Hill is a spectacular and worthy heir to such fare as Jacob's Ladder and Carnival of Souls...just with the very latest in special effects wizardry.

And it happens to be genius, a masterwork of cinematic art. It shows us what CGI can accomplish when coupled with the right story; the right intellect behind the camera.


  1. Anonymous2:27 PM

    John -

    I viewed Silent Hill in the theater, but have not seen it since, so my memory is a bit hazy. I really like your mythopoetic interpretation of the film - it really does hit on some deeply resonant themes, manages to be relevant to contemporary audiences, and maintains the functional-"terrific" elements of the genre. It stands out in my mind as one of the most successful translations of video game atmosphere to screen, though my main narrative criticism is that it uses rearguard story to justify mood when the mood doesn't necessarily need justification.

    The one very interesting piece of criticism that I picked up on the film has to do with its depiction of women, motherhood and matriarchy. One way to view Silent Hill is as a "maternal melodrama" (Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce are two amongst myriad examples) window-dressed as horror. The rock-bottom fears are the same in each. Maternal Melodrama films are about a mother's anxiety over losing their child (The Ring 2 comes to mind in the context of horror, though remains a deplorable film) or being needlessly replaced by them. In Silent Hill, Rose braves Hell for her child, but encounters the other mass neuroses of matriarchy along the way - a perverted, overbearing need to "mother". The puritanical guilt of the cult implicates what we normally call paternalism (a person or entity telling you to do what is best for you, or else) in any other context, but would have to be called "maternalism" here...a repressive parenting without compassion. While subversive texts usually denounce patriarchy for its past sins, transgressions, and oppressions, this film implicates females and femininity, but codes them as male.

    That is where the film gets into trouble from some critics. It was pointed out of The Wicker Man remake that it was a decidedly post-feminist text in its insistence of launching a frenzied assault against women...the film pitted our cool skeptic Nicholas Cage against a number hysterical, irrational women, and in doing so, the film lost much of its initial gravity. Silent Hill isn't quite so guilty, but what I would say is that it almost needlessly does to females what stories of this sort usually do for males. At one level, it reduces the stakes to "good mother vs. bad mother," in the process allowing the film to climax as a glorified cat fight with the angry feel of Ken Russell's The Devils.

    That small area of criticism aside, I agree with John - an admirable piece of contemporary horror and a benchmark for video game adaptation.

  2. Anonymous9:47 AM

    OK. I rented this movie over the weekend based on reading this review. John, I'm glad you liked it and saw all of this meaning and craftsmanship in it. To me it was a total cinematic turd. I thought it was boring beyond belief. It was also painfully obvious that I was watching a video game. I could tell when we were getting to different levels, fighting bosses, and encountering your standard game minions that need to be killed before you can get to the next room. Heck, it even had the objectives you had to find in order to progress in the game. Wtaching this movie was like sitting around watching someone else play a video game. Sure it has some nice visuals, but if you can't control the action what's the point?

    Hollywood REALLY needs to stop making movies of video games. They just don't work. This movie may looks fancy and have some artsy foreign director behind it but in a way it's worse than Super Mario Brothers, Double Dragon, and Mrotal Kombat. At least those movies are fun, this was just a bore.

    Chris Johnson

  3. Chris, you and I see eye-to-eye on a lot of films, but where we're a tough nut to crack!

    That's okay. To each his own. I agree that the video game origins of SILENT HILL remain in the film, but they were not an impediment for me in enjoying it. I felt the film could also be enjoyed in terms of narrative even without any knowledge of game origins.

    The film was long, but I found a lot of the imagery startling and beautiful...

    Sorry you didn't like it, though! (This makes me 0 for 2 with you; because I also recommended Serenity and you didn't like that, either. D'oh!P

  4. Michael De Luca4:17 AM

    "Silent Hill" left me bruised and shaken. The atmosphere, the creatures, the blood, the ferocity, the sheer gravitas of its sound and its fury, resonated in my mind, leaving me unable to sleep. Well done, Mr. Gans. Well done, indeed.