Way back in October of last year I did a series of posts on the Silent Hill franchise. It was initially supposed to encompass the movies and various spin-off materials but went unfinished due to NaNoWriMo starting and a massive amount of reluctance on my part to watch the second film. Every time I did my soul started to spontaneously combust.
But, someone recently reminded me of my pledge and I realized I have this more or less finished review of the first film sitting in my draft folder, so I might as well post it. At some point in the future I may attempt to do something with the sequel (like maybe a Let’s Watch) but I’m making no promises; there’s only a certain amount of bullshit I can tolerate, as unlikely as that seems.
Silent Hill (2006)
I don’t think anyone actually expected a Silent Hill movie to happen, but in 2006 we got a film adaptation directed by Cristophe Gans, of Brotherhoood of The Wolf semi-fame, and written by Roger Avery. That last one was a bit of a surprise- Avery as far as I can tell wasn’t really known as an exceptionally amazing screenwriter (he certainly isn’t now) but having the guy who co-wrote Pulp Fiction on board was kind of a big deal. Both parties professed their undying love for the franchise and the gaming media, whether fairly or not, started to hold the movie up as a possible saviour figure for video game adaptations.
This is probably one of the most faithful game films made in terms of preserving the basic story of the source material. A lot has changed- the protagonist is now a woman and Alessa’s mother is set up as a more sympathetic figure being coerced by a new villain, for example- but the broad strokes of the plot are more or less the same. Rose and her husband Sean Bean are worried about their adopted daughter Sharon due to her repeated nightmares and hallucinations regarding a town called Silent Hill, here a mining town abandoned after a massive coal fire a la the real-world Centralia (check out this creepy as fuck graffiti, which is more Silent Hill than anything in this movie). Rose essentially kidnaps Sharon and drives her to Silent Hill to look for answers against the wishes of Sean Bean, crashes after swerving to avoid a ghostly figure and wakes up to find Sharon gone. Soon it turns out that the town is full of monsters and is periodically taken over by the Otherworld, held at bay only by the fanatical religious sect holed up in a church who offer Rose help but show signs of being up to something shady. Meanwhile in the real world Sean Bean wanders around investigating and unearths clues about a dead girl named Alessa who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sharon.
Is this a good movie? No.
Is this a good Silent Hill movie? Also no.
Let’s address the ways it fails as a general film first before getting into the fanboy stuff. The movie looks pretty gorgeous at times and has quite an oppressive atmosphere, but the writing is atrocious. The already overly convoluted Silent Hill mythos becomes even less coherent when crammed into two hours, even with the considerable efforts the movie goes to to simplify the story and over-explain everything. Apparently the initial plan had been to adapt Silent Hill 2, which of all the games in the series is probably the most easily translatable to film, but Avery and Gans decided (incorrectly) that they had to explain what the deal was with Silent Hill first. So you’ve got the film makers barreling through what is essentially introductory world-building that they don’t really care all that much about in order to get to the story they actually want to tell in a hypothetical second movie.
The film is paced very much like a video game, with a repeating find clues- fight and/or run away from monsters- plot exposition pattern that very quickly gets repetitive and tedious. There are honest to God puzzles, and while solving puzzles in a video game might be perfectly entertaining it turns out that watching other people solve puzzles is just dull. Actually that goes for more or less everything else in the movie as well- you could get roughly the same level of enjoyment out of watching a walkthrough of the first game chopped up so it makes even less sense than usual. Individual scenes are often quite well done, but the way they’re strung together is incoherent and turns into a confusing, poorly paced mess. Also, the ending is really weird and needlessly ambiguous.
Now to get into the fanboy shit.
First of all, the real world/ fog world/ Otherworld dynamic is preserved, but they manage to bungle it severely in execution. Silent Hill is now abandoned in the real world as well as the fog world, which takes away the eeriness of one of the central images of the franchise. Yes, the fog and the broken roads and the monsters are still there, but fundamentally one of the spookiest things about Silent Hill is that it’s mysteriously empty, which is ruined if the town is supposed to be empty (funnily enough this is the same thing Downpour got wrong).
The Otherworld looks quite faithful to the games despite being changed from a subjective realm to a town-wide transformation that happens periodically, but instead of being a silent, oppressive place where mysterious screams and clanking noises echo down dark corridors it’s now like one of those carnival ghost train rides, with shit constantly popping out of the walls and monsters showing up every five seconds to chase the protagonists around. Never has a horror concept been so fundamentally misunderstood in a film.
And about those monsters. They’re a random assortment of creatures from throughout the games, which is fine- a lot of the original monsters aren’t all that visually interesting, so I can understand cherry picking the better ones. What I can’t understand is having them show up in huge packs like zombies all the time. I am very flexible on what a Silent Hill property should or shouldn’t include, but I’m fairly certain a Silent Hill movie shouldn’t have this many characters running away from screaming hordes of demons. On a similar note, for some reason the gore and violence are ramped up enormously, with Pyramid Head showing up at one point to tear someone’s skin off with his bare hands, just because someone thought that would be cool I guess. Alessa’s burning now consists of her being chained to a big metal brazier and roasted alive, which is depicted in a level of detail I frankly found upsetting. The movie ends with a massive orgy of violence in which the last boss from Silent Hill 2 gruesomely slaughters a church full of people with barbed wire, including one bit where the main villain gets split in half after wire-tentacles are inserted into her hoo-hoo. You remember that bit from the first game, right?
Alessa’s backstory has been altered in a way that makes it simultaneously more confusing and less interesting. The Order are now a cult of fanatical sort-of Christians who go on about burning witches all the time and they set Alessa on fire not to bring their God into the world but because she was born out of wedlock. She survives the ordeal and in the hospital “a demon” shows up out of fucking nowhere and offers to give her the power to get revenge on her would-be murderers. Sharon splits off from Alessa because….. I can’t remember, actually.
I know this shit didn’t really make sense in the game either, but at least it felt like there was a reason behind it. Here Alessa’s back story consists of stuff happening for no reason, then Rose shows up and more stuff happens for no reason. Monster-Alessa can’t get into the cultist’s church because they pray away the barbed wire, so she possesses Rose or something to hitch a lift in. Instead of just telling Rose how to find her she left vague clues and hints around the town, because….. just because. This is why video games and movies are separate creative mediums.
The sub-plot with Sean Bean is both utterly pointless and diffuses a lot of the claustrophobic atmosphere by frequently cutting to the real world. This was apparently studio-mandated, but that doesn’t make it any less of a flaw.
Taken on its own the Silent Hill movie is an utterly mediocre action-horror film with some neat visuals; as an adaptation of the game it’s a huge mis-fire on nearly every level, created by people who clearly didn’t understand the source material on anywhere near the level they claimed to.
As poor as its reception may have been, Silent Hill made money and so we got a sequel based on my beloved Silent Hill 3. It may in fact be one of the worst movies ever made. It is so unspeakably terrible that I literally can’t bring myself to watch more than ten minutes of it.