This review is specifically for one of the people in my life that I can say I love and it is wonderful to say that and it not be weird for anyone involved. The cover art today is a sign she made for today’s beautiful annual event. If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is my favourite holiday ever. Growing up as a child with the previous day as my birthday meant cake and presents one day and costumes and candy the next. How can that possibly go wrong? A night where we as children are allowed to be out at night and to celebrate the night. A night where our imaginations and creativity are rewarded. A night where we can become the nightmare or heroes of our own stories to face them or embrace them. What in the name of all the old gods and goddesses is possibly wrong with this?
So when we talk nightmares, let us talk then about a video game that has caused nightmares in many. My ex said this was one of the scariest games she had ever played or watched someone play. So eventually someone was going to make it into a movie. Video Games to movies do not have a particularly stellar track record. Mortal Kombat is probably the least offensive of them, with Resident Evil a close second, and Tomb Raider vying for third place. Of course Uwe Boll got his hands on so many games it hurts on a primal level. This isn’t to say the movies that are made from video games aren’t sometimes entertaining, Doom is positively entertaining, Need for Speed was entertaining; but rather that they aren’t just that good. Frequently this is blamed on the source material being “just a game”, to which I say rubbish. Yes, first and second gen games had the thinnest backstory possible. Hell some third, fourth, and even recent gen games are pretty thin excuses for their own existence in the story department. Then we have games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, even Assassins Creed (II mostly…I hate 3 and 4), and the recent Tomb Raider game. Games these days probably have more plot and story than films do (thank you Bioware and SquareEnix). Somewhere along the way though, and I am no video game expert by a long shot, Konami put a game out.
Konami the studio who gave us Contra, Frogger, and Dance Dance Revolution delivered unto us a horror franchise. I know little to nothing about the game, so will only judge it as a movie, but I am told it is relatively faithful to the setting material. When I spoke of atmosphere in the Fog movie review I spoke of how important it is. The makers of Silent Hill understood this. I know that the game is inspired by real life Centralia Pennsylvania, a place on Jessica’s short list for urban exploring, a town almost literally swallowed into hell by a mine fire that is expected to burn for years to come – thats where the similarities end.
The movie focuses on the story of Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell) and her adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland). Sharon has been having dreams of a place called Silent Hill, dreams of course being a light word for nightmares of extraordinary strength. Rose takes her daughter, without her husband (Sean Bean) Christopher’s consent. Whenever she mentions Silent Hill, people get weirded out, except curious officer Cybil (Laurie Holden), who chases the woman into Silent Hill. Driving faster than she can see proves a mistake and Rose wrecks her car at the entrance to the town. When she wakes her daughter is gone and she is in a grey scale landscape of ash and fog. Chasing a girl she thinks is her daughter through the streets of the seemingly deserted town she hears air raid sirens go off. Then the real nightmares begin.
Keeping with my normal rules of spoiler free, even though this one is past embargo range, I want people to enjoy this film. Enjoy the mystery of the truth of who and what brought Sharon to Silent Hill. The truth of what Silent Hill is and of course…the horror of what it is. Ok, one spoiler and a mystery all it’s own is …how did Sean Bean survive the film? This is Silent flippin Hill.
Lets talk about the writing for a moment, we have Roger Avary as the sole credit on the film. Avary has writing credits on True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction, with an Oscar win for the last. He also has a BAFTA for it and a Saturn Award nomination for his work on the mo-cap Beowulf with Neil Gaiman. What I am saying here is the man knows how to write. He took whatever the game had and wove a rather complex intertwining story of past, present, and future within Silent Hill. I am not talking time travel, but just the levels that the film operates on simultaneously. The story nails it and does something few do, it makes me uncomfortable at times. It also makes me sympathize with the bad guy in this one, but I think you should. Even the way the story progresses makes it still feel like a video game but a logical extension for a running plot as well. When characters find items, use them, or add them to “inventory” it makes sense and feels natural. If you are a gamer, you see it for what it is and it’s hard not to smile at it.
Taking this script and making it a reality was the job of Christophe Gans. I love this man. I love his work. He doesn’t have much and I consider that a shame. Brotherhood of the Wolf was the first film of his I saw and was a beautiful piece of foreign film making. Five years after he was given this script; and just recently did a take on Beauty and the Beast (which I desperately want to see). We now return to our conversation about atmosphere and sweet ladies of the inferno does he create it. When it is light in the town of Silent Hill, there is the weight of fog and ash that surrounds everything. This place feels like it is on the edge of something dark already just from that alone. Then when it goes dark…you are made uncomfortable. It is wrong and you know it. This is Hellraiser territory at times and you can’t help but shift in your seat once or twice after those air raid sirens blare. The performances he elicits out of his actors are incredible, even if some of them reach campy at times, but the work with Mitchell and Ferland is excellent. Proof that yes, child actors work. Proof that a good director can turn great performances from children. His choices on camera work are also incredible as well, putting them in places and moving them in ways that truly inform the story and help push it and us along on this trip where I think even Dante would go “Pace!”
As for the actors, Radha Mitchell is our center of the story, a mother desperately trying to save her child mentally, physically, and spiritually. She is almost a typical last girl that we see in other films, except she begins strong and only gets stronger as the film progresses. The lengths the town (yes it’s a character all it’s own) drives her to are inhuman. The actress performs marvelously and I wish we got more of her in films. Sure we got her in Olympus has Fallen and Man on Fire, but we also saw her in the original Pitch Black – where she was also very fun to watch. Her…sidekick(?) for lack of a better word is Walking Dead’s Andrea Laurie Holden, so spoiler (rollover) you can watch her die horrifically here too? She is mostly a nick of time side kick of usefulness than anything else, but does fairly well here. Deborah Kara Unger (The Game, Payback), plays the mysterious Dahlia a figure who seems immune to the darkness for unknown reasons. Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact, Sorcerers Apprentice) plays the leader of the people of Silent Hill and I think may be channeling Piper Laurie from Carrie for the role. If the majority of the weight falls on Radha, then the remainder falls on Jodelle Ferland (Cabin in the Woods, Paranorman) for her minimal screen time. She handles Sharon well and has to do a lot with very little, but it works none the less.
Now, I talked about how Silent Hill itself is a character? Alright, I will say this first, the CGI here is kinda weak sometimes verging on SyFy weak. The practical though? Incredible. Production designer Carol Spier, who also gave us Pacific Rim and Carrie was a miracle worker. A black miracle perhaps, but miracle none the less. She took a Norman Rockwell town and in daylight it looks broken, in the grey ashfall it looks weighty and wrong, and in the dark is a special hell. The raw amount of practical choices here out weigh any horrific CG work for me. It is no surprise to me that I see Patrick Tatopoulos (Underworld, Stargate, Face Off, Solomon Kane) name on the Creature and Special Make up designer credit, specifically on the Nurses, and it – Pyramid Head. I had no experience with the game, but this thing was a monstrous force on screen that by careful choices of its creators carried real weight that made you know things were about to go terrifyingly wrong. Paul Jones appears to be the other creative lead, considering one of his first films were Waxwork, Hellraiser II, and Nightbreed I can see that he has specialties and they are only getting better. The town is a real thing here because of these people and their crews. It is a living, breathing, entity. It draws and drives the story forward on its own pace as much as any decision the characters make.
Before I get to the TL;DR on one of my longest reviews ever, I want to talk about the music. Pure atmosphere. In another film it could be lighter but when matched with the imagery here the word haunting comes to mind.
This would make my top 10 list of best horror movies. Many would disagree, but I distinctly remember walking from the theatre with my friend Kevin and looking at him going. “I feel…uncomfortable.”
I wasn’t scared, but I was disturbed. I think that counts for something special here. There is imagery, scenes, and shots in the movie that deliberately are crafted to be unpleasant and uncomfortable. It was just that kind of film where my skin was crawling a bit as I walked into a cool April evening. I cannot complain about a movie that I can so distinctly remember how it made me feel and the night as I left it.
I happily and eagerly recommend this film for October viewing, or viewing on a nice foggy night.
Should you watch Silent Hill? Absolutely, but keep the light switch handy.
PS Spoiler Rollover:
I agree with Alessa…and that which became Alessa. I understand her and was cheering for her. Rose’s decision would be mine.