“Je me suis drapé dans ma conception du fantastique, et ce n’est pas celle de tout le monde.” – Christophe Gans
FEATURING: Radha Mitchell, Laurie Holden,
PLOT: After her adopted daughter’s sleepwalking problem turns hazardous, her concerned mother decides to investigate the name of the town that she mutters in her narcoleptic fits: “Silent Hill.” The pair travel to the titular locale, a modern ghost town that has been abandoned for decades due to a coal fire that continuously burns underground. Once inside the city limits, mother and daughter are separated, and the mother’s search for her lost child leads her through increasingly bizarre and portentous adventures in the haunted town.
- This film was adapted from the cult/horror Sony Play Station video game, “Silent Hill”. Movie adaptations of video games were (are) a relatively new phenomenon, and had generally not been well received by either movie critics or fans. Although these movies debuted with the advantage of a built in fan base, Super Mario Bros. (1993), Wing Commander (1993), and Doom (2005) had all been massive critical and box office flops, and that’s leaving aside the efforts of Uwe Boll. Although the Lara Croft and Resident Evil franchises became minor hits, by 2006 the entire video game adaption genre had already become a critical punchline, synonymous with diminished expectations.
- Director Christophe Gans, a French b-movie film-geek turned director, was a fan of the “Silent Hill” game series and convinced that he could fashion the first truly successful game adaptation. He had previously had a surprise international (and modest stateside) hit with Brotherhood of the Wolf [Le Pacte des loups] (2001), a weird but energetic historical/detective/horror/kung fu hybrid.
- Screenwriter Roger Avary assisted on the scripts for Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), as well as handling both screenwriting and directing duties on his own projects, such as Killing Zoe (1994).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Blankets of ash falling over a deserted town like snow, until the eerie stillness is broken by the shrill wail of a 1950s era air raid siren.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Gans paints his murky canvas with the expected monstrosities from deep inside the id, but it’s the film’s disjointed storytelling that turns it from a mere visual romp through scary-town into something totally disconcerting and off-kilter.
Original trailer for Silent Hill
COMMENTS: The critics agree: Silent Hill is a fantastic looking picture, but the script is even murkier than the unlit, hellish underground coal mines that heroine/mom Rose (Radha Mitchell) so frequently finds herself rushing through. Despite being a critical flop (rating a surprisingly low “30% Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes tomatometer) the film has a small cult of ardent defenders who are awed by the phantasmagorical imagery.
I find myself caught somewhere between these two camps. The negative critical reaction seems partially based on the lemmingesque piling on of video game adaptations, as well as a misplaced fetish for strict realism. Still, the critics have a point in that much of Silent Hill‘s scriptural incoherence results from plain lazy writing, rather than a choice to tell the story in a deliberately disjointed manner.
In my mind, these sins make Silent Hill a flawed movie, but not an irretrievably damned one. Ironically, the sloppiness of the script helps make Silent Hill a weirder experience; we can’t actually follow the heroine’s journey in a linear fashion, and without a narrative lifeline we find ourselves flailing in Gans wash of demonic imagery. We become as confused as the characters trapped inside the ghost town, and filled with almost as much uncomprehending dread.
There are several reasons that Silent Hill‘s screenplay winds up so incomprehensible. First, it’s obvious that the filmmakers tried to squeeze too much of the mythology and backstory of the game’s universe into the film’s two hours and seven minutes. A game can take its time revealing its story; gamers demand up to a hundred hours of gameplay, but movies’ running times are limited by the frailties of human buttocks and bladders. There are entire subplots here, like one involving a rural cop with scarred palms who may or may not be a pawn of the evil forces running the town, and another involving a nurse whose innocent curiosity somehow leads her into a hellish spectral half-life, that the story only has time to wave at. They probably should have been dropped entirely. There’s so much backstory, in fact, that at one point the screen goes white and a narrator has to explain the meaning of all the “clues” the script has been piling up. It’s reported that the original cut of the film ran three and a half hours, and it’s quite probable that much of the material that would have made the story lucid wound up on the cutting room floor.
Second, there’s that just-plain-lazy scriptwriting by the once-respected Roger Avery. We reluctantly accept the idea that Rose would choose to treat her emotionally disturbed child by taking her to a ghost town as a necessary, if irritatingly irrational, device for getting the movie started by introducing the characters into their fish-out-of-water predicament. But why does Rose suddenly put pedal to metal and lead a motorcycle cop at a routine traffic stop on a high speed chase when she suddenly notices the off ramp for Silent Hill? Could it be that the writer didn’t care enough to think up some logical means for setting up the automobile crash that separates Rose and her daughter Sharon inside Silent Hill’s city limits, or for introducing the cop into the story as the sidekick?
More sloppiness is demonstrated by the fact that certain clues Rose follows in her search for Sharon seem to be beamed directly in her head, rather than shown to the audience. At one point she rushes around town glancing at maps while searching for a particular building, and we have no idea what she’s searching for. At another point, Rose reaches into a corpse’s mouth to pull out a plot point stuck inside its decaying maw, but the viewer is given no clue what possessed her to take on this icky task.
Sprinkled among these logical and psychological inconsistencies are legitimate mysteries that are later explained by the story, such as why the shadowy figures pursuing Rose suddenly give up and scatter when a caged bird starts chattering and beating its wings.
Back to those spectacular visuals. The film is at its most successful in the three sequences where Rose is thrust into a nightmarish world contained in the bowels underneath the city. This realm is full of impossible geometries, rooms that are infinitely larger on the inside than the outside, corridors littered with decrepit machinery, subterranean corrals cordoned off with chain link fences and barbed wire, and some of the most memorably menacing monsters recently committed to celluloid, who lurk around every corner and pop into frame whenever the director feels it’s time for a less subtle scare. Not to mention the over-the-top, apocalyptic finale, about which I will not say much so as not to spoil the effect, except to mention that it is bizarrely gory, and feels like having a front-row seat for the dreadful Judgment Day in the tiny corner of the universe the movie has set aside for us.
Some critics correctly noted that Silent Hill comes out of the European tradition of the fantastique, which rewards atmosphere and treats a linear plot as nothing more than a hook on which to hang the film’s imagery. This doesn’t excuse the American scriptwriter Avery from almost abandoning the plot entirely. But it does help to remind us that, in regards to what Silent Hill values—creating a frightening, hellish atmosphere—it does very well, and in regards to what doesn’t interest it much—telling a coherent story—it does very poorly. A classic movie should have both plot and atmosphere, but a movie that excels at one aspect may still be quite memorable, even if it falls well short of perfection.
Ultimately, Silent Hill would have been a more successful adaptation either if it made far more sense, providing a satisfactory narrative that made our suspension of disbelief seem less like the act of a sap, or if it made far less sense, choosing to follow the path of pure nightmare. As it is, Silent Hill is a phantasmagorical success, whose incoherencies accidentally enhance the movie’s weirder qualities.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Not only can I not describe the plot of this movie, but I have a feeling the last scene reverses half of what I thought I knew (or didn’t know). What I can say is that it’s an incredibly good-looking film. The director, Christophe Gans, uses graphics and special effects and computers and grainy, scratchy film stock and surrealistic images and makes ‘Silent Hill’ look more like an experimental art film than a horror film — except for the horror, of course.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“…by this point in the story our heroines have not only encountered ghoulish ash babies, demonic cockroaches and a contortionist zombie, but have also slipped so quickly between parallel dimensions of weird that their antics make ‘Mulholland Drive’ look like Main Street…. Not that smart talk or narrative integrity have any place in ‘Silent Hill.’ From first frame to last, not a second of the film has a grip on reality. Structured around a series of blackouts and gross-outs, it is one long free fall through icky surrealism and underlighted nightmares.” – Nathan Lee, New York Times
“Radha [Mitchell] has to fight off hordes of teeny burny babies, busty zombie nurses and some crazy guy wearing a barbecue as a hat. The first half of the film is actually improved by making no sense at all; you suspect that Gans is going for a full-blown Dario Argento-style surreal nightmare… The problem is that Gans isn’t aware that he’s making fluff – he thinks this stuff is serious. It is, however, a well-known axiom that busty zombie nurses and serious filmmaking are mutually exclusive.” – Paul Arendt, BBC
IMDB ENTRY: Silent Hill
OFFICIAL SITE: Silent Hill – Official Site
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST: Interview with Christophe Gans (French)
UPDATE 7/9: Recognizing the film’s growing cult credibility, specialty distributor Shout! Factory released a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of Silent Hill in 2019 (buy). It includes documentary featurettes from previous releases and adds a new commentary track from cinematographer Dan Laustsen and four new interviews: Gans, actors Ferland and Roberto Campanella, and make-up man Paul Jones. This suite makes it the version to get for true fans.