Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Silent Hill (Film)

If there’s one part of the Silent Hill franchise that a more mainstream audience would recognize, it’s the 2006 movie directed by Christophe Gans. Though thrashed by critics on release, it did get better reception from general audiences and I felt curious enough to watch it myself after playing Silent Hill, especially since I found a free TV airing through Starz Encore. After doing so, I think that Silent Hill is an overlooked example of a good video game movie, but it does drag in places for one specific reason.

Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell) and her husband Christopher (Sean Bean) are deeply concerned about their adopted daughter Sharon’s (Jodelle Ferland) sleepwalking and nightmares about the town of Silent Hill. Against her husband’s wishes, Rose drives her daughter to the town, hoping it will help cure her. However, she is chased by police officer Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden) until she swerves to avoid a girl and crashes, blacking out on the spot. When Rose comes to, she finds herself in the Fog World of Silent Hill and her daughter missing.

Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell) searches for her daughter
in the Fog World of Silent Hill.

Silent Hill loosely adapts the original game while incorporating elements from later installments. As such, certain characters from the game, like Cybil Bennett and Dahlia Gillespie (Deborah Kara Unger), are depicted and characterized differently from their original counterparts. The story also takes the basic premise and certain core elements of the original game and executes them a bit differently, including the addition of new characters like Christabella (Alice Krige).

Considering how vaguely the original game presented its story, however, I didn't really mind the alternate direction of the film and still found the story intriguing on its own merits. The central mystery around Sharon’s sleepwalking gradually grows more complex with the addition of a religious cult, the death of a girl named Alessa Gillespie (Jodelle Ferland) and the circumstances behind a continuous coal seam fire under the town, but all of these threads come together at the end in a mostly cohesive way. Each plot thread has room to breathe thanks to a reliance on psychological horror with no cheap jump scares in sight, though there are still some tense and emotional moments that stick out, like Rose and Cybil’s encounter with Pyramid Head. I also liked some attention to detail, like how the iconic opening scene from the original game receives a live-action recreation and how the film differentiates events in the Real World, Fog World and Otherworld with no explanation necessary. Some game mechanics are cleverly inserted into the film as well, such as Rose's cell phone filling the same role as the in-game radio for detecting nearby monsters.

Of course, a two-hour running time does present some issues. At that length, the story has an appropriately slow burn as it builds up to certain events for a better payoff, but there are moments where it noticeably drags. These moments are largely tied to Christopher, whose scenes in the Real World can undercut some of the tension within the Fog World. Granted, his eventual visit to the town in the Real World helps firmly establish the existence of the Fog World, but most of his scenes still create some awkward pacing. After learning the circumstances behind Christopher’s subplot, that director Christophe Gans had already replaced original protagonist Harry Mason for questionable reasons and the studio wanted an increased male presence, it seems clear that if the film kept Harry Mason as the protagonist, Christopher’s scenes could be cut and instantly make for a much tighter script.

Then there’s the inclusion of Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2. Both of its scenes really leave an impression and are easily the most memorable moments in the film. However, Pyramid Head feels like it's there with no real reason other than including an iconic monster from the series. The film did try putting its own spin on Pyramid Head, basing it more on the Egyptian god Anubis, but this concept isn’t explored well and still misunderstands the original point of the monster, as it served a powerful symbolic purpose for James Sunderland, the protagonist of Silent Hill 2.

Pyramid Head doesn't really fit within the film's setting.

Unlike the story, I have absolutely no complaints about how the film looks. Silent Hill’s atmosphere is perfectly recreated, with a disturbingly empty town that actually looks abandoned and a constant sense of dread that the Fog World could shift to the Otherworld at any moment. The Fog World and Otherworld also look impressive, with coal ash lingering in the air in the former (as opposed to snow like the game) and a rusted metallic look in the latter, with a very impressive transition effect between them to boot. Although it may not look like it at first, the humanoid monsters are done with very impressive practical effects, great acting and some CG. In fact, the film’s use of CG is generally very good and unintrusive. I also liked the attention to detail in the environments, which add to the atmosphere and can often tell a story on their own. The cinematography even goes as far as recreating the game's love of cinematic camera angles.

I also don’t have any complaints about the music. Many tracks consist of Akira Yamaoka’s compositions lifted directly from Silent Hill 1-4 and are used very effectively. One of the best uses for me was repurposing “Promise (Reprise)” as a leitmotif for Sharon and Alessa. At times, I heard some sound design lifted from the games as well, including the sound of the siren and some of the atmospheric noises.

Silent Hill translates surprisingly well to a psychological horror film, capturing the tone and atmosphere to a tee. However, Christopher’s story drags in places, an issue the director unintentionally brought on himself. If you can overlook this and are looking for a better video game movie or a more atmospheric horror film for Halloween, consider giving this film a shot.

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