There's so much loving and faithful detail ascribed to Christophe Gans' (the French born director behind Brotherhood of the Wolf) homage to the popular Konami franchise, that you almost want to stand up and applaud the eulogic efforts of all those involved. And for loyalists to the game, that comes, I'm sure, as something of a relief. Nothing's worse than investing hours upon hours on a game that you love, only to find that its been re-imagined by a team of Hollywood producers looking to milk fans out of every last, devoted dollar and at the same time, draw in markets that have "tested well". We fall in love with our video game personae, or more accurately, seek to find a piece of our identities, real or otherwise, within their two-dimensional renderings. Some of us don costumes in their honor, and may even find ourselves peeking around corners to see if an enemy lie in wait as we walk to the mini-mart for milk. We search for cryptic clues to the location of misplaced household items, sometimes where there are none, and in some very subconscious ways build our daily regimen around strategy, and gameplay intuition. To say that our lives take on new meaning may be stretching it, but I bet for some gaming devotees, it barely scratches the surface.
So finding that the integrity of our memory card valhallas has been maintained and honored in transit to its transcription to the screen can be a thrilling and rewarding experience. Like proud parents we sit and smile, glued to the images wrought colossal in the dark. A fitting tribute can bring such warmth to a fan as to take the fizz out of the soda in their hand. And for those who have been witness to such a parade of glory, Silent Hill may mark a milestone in their hearts. To those of us who liked the game enough, but also wanted a spine-numbing experience to treasure as well as an appreciative visionary feast, well...we might want to reload the consoles instead.
Hopefully one is well aware that, when seeing a film named after a game, the concept of a sub-genre finds its way into their expectant minds. The truth is, projects like Silent Hill, Doom, and Resident Evil might well have ended up in the round file at treatment stage were it not for the built in audiences that come with their gaming franchises. And those audiences represent a rich deposit of ticket buyers to mine. Silent Hill the movie is mostly based on the original game, with popular elements and tones worked in from the sequels. I've only played the first installment, but even as far back as that was I can still remember thinking, "this could be a great movie". I was half right if I was expecting a traditional genre picture, but completely spot on if I understood that plot and clever storytelling conventions were simply the haphazard splotches of glue that held the overall pastiche together.
The story begins with a panic straight away: Rose (Radha Mitchell, Pitch Black, Finding Neverland) and Christopher De Silva (Sean Bean, Lord of The Rings, The Island) are searching for their sleepwalking, adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland, They, TV's "Carrie" and "Dark Angel"). She is eventually spotted at the edge of a demonically high cliff, seemingly right in their backyard. I couldn't help but think that they might have chosen a better place to raise a family, but I was pulled back into the fantasy when Sharon visualizes a small child, very much like herself, falling into a hellish abyss of sorts. She almost follows in after her vision when mommy dearest executes a perfect open field tackle at the last minute. Sharon's cries of "Silent Hill, Silent Hill" are apparently par for the course with the wee weirdo, and in subsequent scenes we discover that these episodes, unresponsive to medical treatment, have the parents at odds over whether they should explore the matter further on their own. Rose wants to visit the Silent Hill of her daughter's nightmares to dig out the source of her torment, but hubby, after a Googling session reveals the town's haunted history, vehemently disagrees.
Rose, however, is compelled to get to the bottom of the mystery and charts a course for the forbidden locale, which is what any good mother would do, I guess. Why she decides to bring the daughter with her to a haunted town gated off from the rest of the world is a little beyond me, but I promised I would consistently remind myself that I was watching a new sub-genre of horror where actions that brought about imminent danger were expected, even encouraged. After all, how could you start getting attacked by stuff if you went on your own, or with armed company, and could easily just turn around when things got too hairy? Surely, it makes sense to have various encounters with a police officer, in this case one named Cybil Bennet (Laurie Holden, Fantastic Four, and voice of the original game character) who was skeptical of your interests in visiting the town and who would end up arresting you shortly after you crashed your SUV and got separated from your daughter. And shortly afterward, it seems perfectly natural to run about the abandoned town in which you have been mysteriously imprisoned, chasing glimpses of your child down foreboding alleyways and into the cavernous, industrial caves of every possible permutation of societal institution one's day terrors can conjure. All this is du rigueur, especially when night falls (set to a timer that feels like every couple of hours or so) and from its shadows births horrific creatures literally from the floors and walls of the entropic environs � creatures that appear to exist for absolutely no other reason than to make your skin crawl. I learned that once I accepted this type of activity and behavior to be the natural order of things, I instantly settled into the "game zone", prepared for some seriously scary fun.
And I almost got it. If you're not trapped in a dark theater and into the time investment for a tenner plus, I can see how someone might have cooled to Silent Hill's first three-quarters of an hour and reached for the remote. Even if you're appropriately prepared for the Playstation preposterousness of the circumstances, there's a good chance the only creatures you'll be engaging are "the Fidgets". First, the dialogue is interactive gaming 101. Even the perfs seem intentionally wooden, almost as if Gans was really going for some total game immersion experiment. Secondly, our heroine proceeds to do a running tour of the "facilities", always scared, but never really in much danger as there are plenty of safe houses within which to hide. What we're treated to is a tour of typical Hill-ish story elements, such as the falling ash, the mazy, chain link fences, the dusty creepy interiors, the dingy toilets, and the silence breeched by the occasional creak and clank of metal. All are represented with an artist's touch, but so far, I'm still not exactly...scared. Once Rose finds a gas-masked corpse, strung up in a kind of effigial display, I figure its all about to go down. And it does. In seconds, she's surrounded by dozens of smoldering, spindled, mutant moppets called The Grey Children, doing their best to, I think, pet her with their CGI claws. Eventually they're upon her, and just when she looks doomed to be petulantly stroked to further hysterics, the sun reappears and the fawning tots from hell go up in smoke. Its at precisely this time that I start to get worried about Silent Hill. Am I going to have to endure another hour or so of cartoon gangbangs without even being able to shoot a few of the participants?
Luckily, there was a much different philosophy of aesthetic in store for me. The special features section of the DVD has a series of very illuminating mini-docs on the making of this film, and most of them involve the construction and development of the utterly amazing set pieces and creature costumes. And indeed, they, and the master craftsmen behind their creation, are the stars. As Rose follows a series of clues seemingly left for her by Sharon, we get to meet the gloriously ghoulish cast of daytime and nighttime Silent Hill. And if the town had a Master of Ceremonies, it would have to be Pyramid Head. His features are as written, stands somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 feet tall, and carries a sword the size of a surfboard, and on occasion, the skinned corpse of one of SH's slower denizens. We come to learn that he stalks the town for members of a cult that hide in a church-like sanctuary, and who have everything to do with the gory goings-on that have drawn Sharon back. Again, the creatures are magnificent, and at times, too close for comfort. But their presence seems more intended to display the live-action equivalent of their inspirations then to make us feel in danger. Their movements are more modern dance than obsessively murderous, and I began to get the impression that night was not actually the setting of the sun but a lighting director's preparation for the next shot in a Tool video � or more likely given the man at the helm � a special Halloween-themed, Cirque de Soleil. After further investigation into the special features section, I developed a great appreciation for the physical discipline and choreography that went into bringing these beasts to life. Indeed, dancers were used inside the costumes, and in one scene, a hallway filled with nurses looked ready to back up a pop singer that might have gone by the name Brittany Fears. Morbidly fascinating, disturbingly elegant, darkly inspired � all these terms could be used to describe the inhabitants and machinations of Gans' appropriated nightmare. Unfortunately, for me at least, frightening wasn't one of them.
But maybe the question is, "does Silent Hill need to be frightening like the game to be fun and worth a look?" And the answer is "not as long as you know what you're in for". Perhaps I was lead down a primrose path of sorts by the memories of my gaming experience. I used to turn the lights off, the TV's surround-sound up, and get real close to the screen when playing Harry, the game's original version of the truth seeker (making the central character a female for the movie was intentional to yet again capitalize, I assume, on that mother/child dynamic so popular in modern horror - either that or Christophe wanted to be surrounded by mostly women during the production, which also feels right). And when I tell you there were times where I had to put the controller down and collect myself, I mean it. That said, the film does a masterful job of duplicating the experience visually, just not viscerally. Asking too much? Possibly. But pulling the camera back in order to take in as much of the fabulous set work as possible opens the scene wide and gives us air and space in which to seek emotional refuge. As I stated earlier, there always seems to be time for Rose to escape or suss out a situation. In this case, the pic is very much like the game; we can pause, take breathers, and consult an inventory for clues. But that's not exactly the part of the game I was interested in reliving.
As for the story and plot itself, much of it is somewhat convoluted and can-kicked to the end where a series of expository speeches tie together the loose ends of our curiosity. I won't give away the source of the town's ills, but I will say that there are a few strands that call into question the true nature of faith, how fear is used to control a body of lost souls, and how an evil that begets evil is often swaddled in the blanket of righteousness and good intentions. Despite being obviously, and a little clumsily, addressed to the current U.S. government administration, none of what we learn is particularly profound, and by the climax of it all we're really only interested in the last pieces of the town's secret puzzle. The revealing yields CGI carnage to the anticipated extreme, but it all feels a little flat after having been audience to the impressive flesh and blood histrionics that preceded it.
Epilogue: Silent Hill is a fantastic, animated wax museum of gamers nostalgia, remaining true to the spirit of the original experience if falling short on one of the main purposes of visiting in the first place. The performances count in all the right places, even if they're more interested in honoring, rather than embodying, the essence of the characters. There are some moments of impressive violence, and therein is where we get our only real sense of malice until its practically foisted on us at the penultimate conflict. One of the sequences can be found on Youtube and it involves our good friend, Pyramid Head. If nothing else, seek it out, fear-mongers. Its well executed, bile raising and really quite original. And don't miss the DVD's special features section, as its the real payoff of watching the film. The passion and attention to detail in the set construction and creature creation is astounding. The crew, from Gans to screenwriter Roger Avery (The Rules of Attraction, Glitterati) on down, gave everything they had to bring a world sacred among so many to life, and its a real treat to watch their talents in action.