Since Christophe Gans’ surprise international success with Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), there has been a certain amount of anticipation for what he would do next after showing such promise with a film that effortlessly juggled several genres. For awhile, he was attached to The Adventurer, an Indiana Jones-style adventure film and a remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, neither of which made it past the pre-production phase. Fortunately, he finally made another movie called Silent Hill (2006). Unfortunately, it’s an adaptation of the video game of the same name. The track record for these kinds of movies isn’t that good (Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark anyone?).
After her daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) almost sleepwalks her way off a cliff while yelling out the words, “Silent Hill,” Rose (Radha Mitchell) decides to find and take her daughter to the place of the same name as a form of therapy. Rose and her husband Chris (Sean Bean) differ on how to treat their adopted daughter – he thinks she should be medicated and see a doctor, while Rose chooses Silent Hill, West Virginia because that’s where Sharon supposedly came from. Unfortunately, after they leave, Chris does some research and finds out that where they are going is a notorious ghost town that was devastated by a horrendous fire 30 years ago.
While foolishly trying to outrun a police officer (Laurie Holden) on a motorcycle on a dangerous stretch of road, Rose crashes her SUV trying to avoid a mysterious figure. When she regains consciousness, her daughter has disappeared and ash falls from the sky like snow. Rose continues on foot with the cop and they soon find themselves in Silent Hill, a deserted town not on any maps. Unfortunately, they soon encounter the town’s creepy denizens while searching for Sharon.
Radha Mitchell, who established solid genre credentials with Pitch Black (2000), plays a strong woman who undergoes an emotionally harrowing journey during the course of the film. She is credibly scared out of her mind when it is warranted but is also very proactive, driven to find her daughter. Mitchell has the ability to act tough while also conveying a vulnerability that makes her very appealing. It is also nice to see Sean Bean cast against type, playing a sympathetic character instead of the bad guys he traditionally plays.
As he demonstrated with Brotherhood of the Wolf, Gans is an excellent visual storyteller and within the first five minutes not only the central dilemma but also a richly atmospheric world with a David Lynchian soundscape is established. He also demonstrates a knack for vivid, unsettling imagery: an army of horribly charred toddlers still burning as they swarm all over Rose, crying out in pain. With its nightmarish, otherworldly look, Silent Hill clearly exists in another time and place and Gans conveys this through production and set design rich in detail and a soundtrack that uses music sparingly but when he does it is unusual and very effective. He downplays a musical score that is trip-hop in nature (a funky juxtaposition) in favor of elaborate sound design including an eerie air raid siren that goes off repeatedly when something bad is going to happen.
I have never played the video game so I have no idea how faithful this film is to its source material but it is strong enough to stand on its own merits and is very much its own entity. They say every town has its own story and Silent Hill’s is as troubled as they come. Over the course of the film, its past and the source of the apocalyptic fire that brought about its demise is gradually revealed. Silent Hill is one of those rare horror films that is truly horrific, right down to its impressively staged grand guginol finale where the tormentors become the tormented as Rose serves up some well deserved revenge but not in a stereotypical way, like at the end of a gun. Like most good horror movies, Rose’s journey is a waking nightmare with one frightening encounter after another with all sorts of grotesque creatures tormenting her along the way.
Silent Hill is a refreshing horror film in that it not only features two female protagonists who are more than capable of taking care of themselves and uncover the mysteries of the town but also a formidable female antagonist and the man as the passive character who waits by the phone for our heroine to call. Roger Avary’s screenplay isn’t anything special but it doesn’t need to be in Gans’ capable hands. Together, they have crafted a clever horror film that depicts a zealous, puritanical society punished for unjustly persecuting witches. The film illustrates the destructive power of hatred – pretty heavy topics for a video game adaptation.
“Paths of Darkness: Making Silent Hill” is comprised of six featurettes that can be viewed separately or altogether. Gans was a big fan of the video game and found it very scary with lots of cinematic possibilities. For the director, the film is about fear and emotion and that is what attracted him to it. He also purposely cast actors who work predominantly in independent cinema because they aren’t instantly recognizable and in one featurette he touches upon why he cast the actors that he did while they talk about their characters. Most of the town of Silent Hill was created from scratch with four different phases of its incarnation that resulted in an impressive 106 sets! However, they did film some exteriors in the Canadian town of Brantford, Ontario. A terrific amount of work went into these sets as these extras illustrate. They also explore the stunt work and how, in particular, Radha Mitchell and Laurie Holden did a lot of their own stunts and had a blast doing them. We also see how the various creatures were created – Gans’ mandate was that they should be disturbing rather than disgusting, although, they are that as well.