I bought one of the Silent Hill games for my brother after he said it was one of the creepiest games on the market. A few months later, I asked him what he thought of it. "Boring," he said. "It takes forever for something to happen."
What really made me want to watch the movie was the insane, over-the-top, hell-on-earth imagery that I saw in the previews. Oddly enough, I didn't see the same preview twice. It seems like either the audience was different each time (my Tivo tapes everything from cartoons to sci-fi shows to comedies), or that the studio felt it was giving too much away. Since I hadn't played the games, I didn't know what to expect.
The movie starts out with a bang as Rose (the attractive Radha Mitchell) and Christopher (the stalwart Sean Bean) Da Silva trying to rescue their daughter, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) from certain doom. It seems the girl sleepwalks, with vivid nightmares of a place called Silent Hill. The two parents have a fundamental difference of opinion as to how to handle Sharon's somnambulism: Christopher wants to get her drug treatment, while Rose decides she needs to visit the town to face her fears.
You see, Sharon was adopted. And it just so happens that she came from Silent Hill.
Silent Hill, as it turns out, is not a place anyone actually visits. Some time in the 70s, a terrible fire lit the local coalmines beneath the town on fire, and it continues to burn to this day. So it's completely off limits, with the added benefit of being a really creepy place to boot; soot and ashes float around in the air, creating a perpetual twilight.
Against Christopher's wishes, Rose takes Sharon to Silent Hill. Along the way, a pretty lady cop (Cybil Benett, played by the tasty Laurie Holden) gets suspicious and gives chase. It's hard not to notice that female patrol officers in Silent Hill wear tight-fitting leather chaps and shirts. But I digress.
The chase ends with Sharon missing. Rose and Cybil are now in another dimension, the alternate realm known as Silent Hill. Now the movie really gets started.
Silent Hill reminded me a lot of Dante's Inferno. It's more a tour of the place than an actual story, and the movie plays out the same way. Silent Hill is a combination of purgatory and hell, vacillating between the two realms at random. Every time darkness falls, a fire siren rings out and birds fly for the nearest church, heralding the arrival of hell. And what a hell it is.
Silent Hill has to be one of the most messed-up visualizations of hell ever put on screen. It's like that brief glimpse of hell envisaged in Constantine, only they made a whole movie out of it. Throughout, we can never forget that this town suffered a horrible, burning fate. Twisted, melted children clutch and crawl, wail and whine. Nurses with warped heads sigh and screech, striking with jittery, film-stop motions. An evil janitor has been turned into a twisted S&M mockery, summoning demonic swarms of roaches with human faces. Then there's the big pyramid-headed demon, who drags a massive blade behind him.
This is really good material for a video game. But after a certain point, the protagonists have to actually do something. Cybil shows promise: she's a cop and she knows how to use a gun. She manages to shoot several creatures in the head, and even beats up five men at once. Unfortunately, she disappears for half the movie.
Rose, on the other hand, is an irrational, screaming wreck. While one might make the case that you would be the same way after what Rose witnessed, after awhile her purpose in the story seems to mostly just survive by not doing anything particularly clever. It starts to feel like the scriptwriters are protecting Rose for some greater purpose, failing to convey any sense of danger.
Bean's character has no relevance to the film whatsoever. He goes through an investigation of what happened at Silent Hill, but fails to unearth any new information; everything he learns is revealed to Rose as well. IMDB indicates that Bean's character was fleshed out because there were "no men in the movie." So filler was added to balance the gender equation, and it shows. Does anyone really care that there weren't enough men in a movie? This isn't a romance!
The characters don't have much opportunity for plot development. At one point, after witnessing burning babies and phlegm-spitting zombies, someone says, "something terrible happened here." I laughed out loud. My guess is the scenes were edited out of order. Yes, ladies, when zombies are clawing at you and a town is covered in perpetual soot, you can bet your bottom dollar that "something terrible happened" there.
The other problem is that Silent Hill doesn't really want to offend anybody. Although there's plenty of gore and vague Christian imagery, the tragedy that created Silent Hill is directly tied to the dangers of religious fundamentalism. Instead of making a comment about modern day religious zeal by portraying the group as a believable cult, it comes off as badly transplanted witch-hunter dialogue. It's hard to believe the cult existed in a modern 70s town. Instead of making the cult members pathetically misguided, they come off as cartoonish.
Despite its plot flaws, Silent Hill is a visceral experience. The monster effects are superb, using a combination of CGI and latex makeup that rarely looks fake. The contrast between the light of limbo and the darkness of hell is chilling. And then there's the use of sound; at various points, the movie becomes completely silent. Never has silence been so terrifying.
The end is somewhat predictable and contrived, leaving it open to a sequel. And really, Silent Hill isn't that bad of a horror movie. It resorts to the slow terror of awfulness; not the oogity-boogity shrieking attacks common to what passes for horror these days. In that respect Silent Hill is an achievement: a horror film that is content to horrify. It's Hellraiser for the gamer set, and that's not such a bad thing.
Now if they could only find something for Sean Bean to do…