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Silent Hill
cast: Radha Mitchell, Sean Bean, Laurie Holden, Deborah Kara Unger, and Alice Krige

director: Christophe Gans

130 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Pathé DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Silent Hill is perhaps one of the more spectacular examples of a film failing at the box office despite having every possible reason for succeeding on paper. Directed by Christophe Gans fresh from the success of Brotherhood Of The Wolf and written by Oscar winning Pulp Fiction scribe Roger Avary, Silent Hill even had a built-in fan base in the shape of millions of gamers. However, when the film eventually limped onto cinema screens the reaction was one of disinterest from the general public and bile from film critics. With the pre-release hype and the negative reviews faded from our memories, Silent Hill's DVD release offers the film a second chance of winning us over and maybe resurrecting what should otherwise be a profitable franchise. So the issue facing us is whether the critics were right in calling this film a stylish but empty husk or whether the gamers are right in saying that this is a good film that was cruelly misunderstood by critics intolerant of genre films and snobbish about videogame adaptations. As dull as it may sound, the truth is that ultimately both groups are right... and wrong.

Childless couple Rose and Christopher Da Silva adopt a little girl named Sharon only to discover that she has serious mental health problems. Prone to sleepwalking and crying out the name of a ghost town near her orphanage, Sharon's tendency to stand on the edge of cliffs has prompted doctors to want her institutionalised, but her mother Rose thinks that the best way to solve her little girl's problems is to take her to Silent Hill in the hope of confronting the source of her trauma. Running from her husband and a sexy policewoman, Rose crashes her car on the outskirts of Silent Hill only to wake up finding Sharon gone and ashes falling from the sky like snow. Soon a civil defence alarm goes off and the town shifts and distorts from a creepy ashen ghost town into an industrialised version of hell full of weird creatures including the beautifully designed but stupidly named Pyramid Head, a seven foot giant with a pyramid for a head who trails a gigantic sword around with him and wades through an ocean of giant cockroaches with human faces. With help from the sexy policewoman, Rose manages to stay alive long enough to discover the cause of Silent Hill's destruction in the actions of a bunch of religious fanatics.

Among the DVD extras for Brotherhood Of The Wolf is an interview with Gans in which he unashamedly says that to him it is far more important to ensure that his camera is focussed on an actor's face while they are talking than it is to ensure that the scene's subtext and emotional impact are effectively portrayed. By saying this, Gans reveals himself as being not so much an auteur as a technically competent director and Silent Hill bears witness to this fact. Building wonderfully on the first game's aesthetics, Silent Hill has a wonderfully apocalyptic feel to it, the town looks like an abandoned 1950s' city, as if the people had been blown away by some Cold War era nuclear exchange that never happened. The shift from purgatory to hell is accompanied by a baroquely beautiful wave of decay as paint flakes off the walls and corridors twist and contort. The monsters are also by and large well designed from Pyramid Head down to the twitching grey zombies that are attracted by the light. Clearly, Gans knows how to manage a special effects team and the work done here is certainly sterling stuff. Indeed, the film is almost worth seeing for the atmosphere. The problem is with everything else...

Silent Hill is, to be blunt, one of the worst written films I have ever seen. The dialogue is so stilted and repetitive that one almost wonders whether it wasn't a deliberate choice by Avary to ape the poorly translated scripts of the games themselves. The characters themselves are never anything more than one dimensional cardboard cut outs without any trace of depth and many secondary characters (including the one played by the excellent Sean Bean, this time affecting an American accent as awful as it is pointless) are kept hanging around with nothing to do simply waiting to be used.

The plot itself is full of clichés and silliness such as evil children, religious fanatics and worried mothers but, in truth, none of these serve to drive the plot as Silent Hill is nothing more than a series of set pieces, right up until the last act where characters virtually fall over each other to give pompous expository speeches. If one were being generous one could compare the film to the post-narrative horror films of Dario Argento (Deep Red) or Lucio Fulci (The House By The Cemetery), or indeed the ham-fisted plot devices of the games ("you have found a key!") but the truth seems more likely to be a simple lack of interest in telling an interesting story.

With such frightful dialogue, weak characterisation and clunky plotting, we are a million miles away from the machinegun wit and over-lapping plotlines of Pulp Fiction. However, the film's real failure is that it simply is not scary. By having Rose descend into Hell almost as soon as she arrives in Silent Hill, Gans gives us the money shot far too soon and, after that, the town's demons and ugliness lose their scariness, retaining only their Boschian surrealist hideousness. Indeed, with the exception of the first sighting of the coal miners, the film never so much as takes an interest in tension or suspense, preferring instead to drown the audience in wave after wave of CGI ugliness. To be fair to Gans, though, the Silent Hill games are not particularly good at horror either. The horror genre for videogames actually bears little or no resemblance to the literary or cinematographic horror genres. The latter two tend to be all about suspense and slowly building towards a grand reveal when the true hideousness of the characters' plight becomes apparent. However, videogames tend to last around 10 hours and the economics of the videogame market mean that asking your players to wander around being a bit freaked out for 10 hours before the monster turns up simply wouldn't work... people would get bored. So instead, horror games tend to function more like thrillers or action films that borrow the visual language or horror films resulting in games where you get to the good stuff almost immediately and then spend 10 hours killing things and therein we see why both the critics and the fans were right and wrong about this film.

Silent Hill is a film based upon a game and it suffers from Gans and Avary's decision to stick closely to that source material. As a completely different form, videogames have their own aesthetics, tempered in the demands placed upon designers by the need to be a game and not just a story. Silent Hill's weak dialogue, characterisation and plotting effectively translate a videogame's aesthetics to the big screen and thereby demonstrate the extent to which videogames are a completely different medium to films. The critics were right in panning this film as a wonderful technical achievement that is little more than an empty husk and fans of the games are right in pointing out that this film is true to the source material and that the film operates within the genre conventions of the games. However, the film itself fails because I can think of no earthly reason why a film should satisfy the genre demands of a videogame. There are some occasions where the demands of a genre get in the way and Silent Hill is a perfect example of that.
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