Since I’m trying to pepper my October movie viewings with the occasional horror film, trying to find a good one, I decided to include some relatively recent efforts in the mix. After all, while they’re unlikely to have the cheesy charm of the older ones, maybe some of the cinematic advances over the years would help them out in other ways. So I decided to add 2006’s Silent Hill to my viewing queue when Hulu recommended it. (I forgot to see why it was making the recommendation, and I’m not sure I want to know. This is the same service that recommended David Spade’s Black Sheep when it saw I really liked the Civil War drama Glory.)
Silent Hill is inspired by the series of survival-horror video games by the same name. Although “based on a video game” sets pretty big alarm bells to ringing, especially when I haven’t even been interested in the game, I had to grant that the series is very popular, and has a reputation for being genuinely frightening, so it might very well be a good source of inspiration for a horror film. And though I had to wonder how much it was being skewed by die-hard fans of the game, the viewer scores for this film were reasonably high on Hulu. Plus, it stars Sean Bean, who did a pretty good job as Boromir in The Lord of the Rings. That had to be a hopeful sign, right?
Sean Bean and Radha Mitchell star as Chris and Rose DaSilva, adoptive parents of a young girl named Sharon (Jodelle Ferland). Sharon has a problem that has been causing her parents concern: she sleepwalks, sometimes out to the cliff’s edge, while having nightmares. During these episodes she sometimes yells out the words “Silent Hill”.
It is, unfortunately, very soon after this is shown that we lose all hope that this is going to be a film with intelligent people in a bad situation. While the supernatural elements revealed later indicate that it may have been a forgone conclusion, what we’re shown initially is that Rose is extremely rash and reckless — arguably she’s a bigger danger to her daughter than anything in the film, but the film keeps its focus on her as the hero. After the most recent of these episodes, Chris wants to take Sharon back to the hospital for more tests, therapy, medications, and so forth. But Rose is unconvinced they’ll be effective, and decides to take a more direct tactic: She’s going to take Sharon to the abandoned town of Silent Hill that she keeps having hellish nightmares about.
I’m no psychologist. But I do know that while exposure therapy is a common treatment for trauma and phobias, it’s usually done by a licensed professional in a controlled, safe environment. One parent taking the kid against the wishes of the other, with no therapist input, to a ghost town that is still partly on fire from a coal mine explosion, does not constitute a controlled, safe environment. Rose then leaves Sharon in the car while she pays for gas at a station/diner; this doesn’t result in any harm (though it still seems a reckless act in this day and age), but it does get the attention of Officer Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden) who is a little paranoid about the prospect of abducted kids after an incident a few years ago. Bennett later pulls Rose over for speeding as she’s heading to Silent Hill. While Bennett checks her license, Rose spots the sign for the turnoff and decides to take off, at an even higher speed than before.
She wrecks the car, of course, just as she reaches the town. And, just as naturally, she finds Sharon missing when she awakes.
Silent Hill is a ghost town, and the visual shots reflect its nature as a ghost town. It’s soft, white, and hard to see. Ash from the coal fire is continually falling, and there’s a constant haze in the air. Periodically birds go nuts, air raid sirens go off, and darkness takes the town — but not the dark of night. Walls start decaying, and assorted humanoid abominations start crawling the streets and buildings. The monsters are well-done, but there’s a problem with them in terms of believability. I think we need a new vocabulary term here; we have the Uncanny Valley for realism in CG creations. We need an Absurdity Valley for monster movies. The monsters here are so grotesque that they are no longer creepy, they’re just silly. The first impression is that someone is trying too hard. (Of course, it doesn’t help that some of them move like a Ray Harryhausen production.)
Rose and Officer Bennett, after a few more mix-ups, team up together to find Sharon and figure out what happened in this town, and what Sharon’s connection with it is. Meanwhile, Chris comes to Silent Hill to find his wife and child. The contrast in the scenes is interesting; while Rose is fighting through fog and ash clouds, Chris’s scenes are warm and sunny, and devoid of monsters. It’s part of the supernatural effect of the place; while they’re both in Silent Hill, in a real sense they’re not in the same Silent Hill.
Rose eventually finds a group of normal people still residing in the town. Well, “normal” needs some qualification here. They’re a fanatic Christian cult with a habit of stoning and burning “witches”. They’ve survived through holing up in the church. Alice Krige, whose calling in life appears to be playing creepy old ladies, plays Christabella, leader of the group. Through her presence, Rose learns the past of the town, and is eventually led to where she can face the darkness of the town and save Sharon.
There are some things this movie does reasonably well. The effects on some of the monsters (particularly the coal people) are well done. The cinematography is nicely planned out, with different lighting effects for scenes subtly forecasting certain events. And the actors all do a reasonable job. The problem, as is so often the case, is the plot. It relies too heavily on bad decisions and willful obstruction from supposedly intelligent people. It presents “twists” that are easy to see coming because they’re some of the most common and trite for the genre. It tries very hard to impress with shock and awe instead of dramatic impact, and as noted before, it tries too hard.
Ultimately, while there was enough good in this film for me to want to like it, I didn’t. In some ways, this would have been a much better film had it not been Silent Hill. Remove the video game connection, and it’s no longer obliged to include the video game monsters. Remove those, and it could have been a workable psychological thriller. But as it is, it’s mostly just a mess that’s in love with its own grotesqueness.