"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, October 2, 2009

DVD of the Week: Silent Hill

NOTE: To celebrate Halloween I will be posting articles related to horror films all month.

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.

Special Features:

“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.


  1. J.D.:

    What a wonderful Halloween treat!

    I absolutely loved Silent Hill. It blew me away, frankly.

    I adored the Orpheus-style descent into an underworld; and I thought the film achieved genre greatness with that moody, ambiguous coda, one designed to express deep melancholy. A family reunion that should be joyous turns ambivalent; sour...an emotional disconnect reminding us that darkness is not confined to the town of Silent Hill.

    Thank you for featuring this great review of an underrated film. I own it on DVD, but my wife refuses to watch it again until our son is all grown up...because it scared her so much.

    I may just have to watch it again without her. :)

    John Kenneth Muir

  2. Twice I've tried to watch this and twice I've given up after ten minutes. Which is a shame, cos I really like Radha Mitchell. Still, on your recommendation I'm prepared to give it another go.

  3. John Kenneth Muir:

    Ah! Great to see another admirer of this film. It kinda got a critically mauled when it first came out and shrugged off as another useless video game adaptation but I think that there is much more going on and the atmosphere of this film gets me every time. True, it is not an easy film to watch but there is a lot to admire.

    Incidentally, my wife finds this film very scary but she's a glutton for punishment and finds herself watching it repeatedly anyways.

    Mark Salisbury:

    I really like Radha Mitchell as well. She was absolutely wonderful in ROGUE and despite my wariness of remakes, I am looking forward to seeing her in THE CRAZIES as well.

    If you can, you should really give this film another chance. I'd be curious to know what you think.

  4. I felt the acting and the 3rd act exposition made this otherwise stunning visual horror fest difficult to swallow. I think a rewrite, and perhaps a different characterization of the female cop- might have helped. It's not bad, it just feels lacking. Loved the ending. Sad that Sean Bean had little to do.

  5. Saw this in an empty theater when it came out, which kinda made the movie a very creepy experience. While I can't really justify Gans' unbalanced sense of editing and character development, on pure visuals alone, this is one of the most terrifying movies in recent years. Love the swinging headless nurses that attack on sound... which is very faithful to the game and made me give up playing it due to how impossible it was to get past.

  6. I never got to view this movie (partly because of its video game pedigree). But, your review will make me rectify that, J.D. I'm a fan of Gan's Brotherhood of the Wolf (especially the Director's Cut), and Radha Mitchell. And your point of Sean Bean playing against type is a good one. He was great in his small part in Ronin as the poser among the pros. Thanks for this.

    p.s., a few days ago, I went to Tarantino's revival theatre here in L.A. (New Beverly Cinema) for a Carpenter-double of The Thing and Prince of Darkness. So, I really appreciate the new background pic for Radiation Heaven. Great choice!

  7. Radha was also quite brilliant in Marc Forster's Everything Put Together. Worth a watch. Very Nic Roeg.

  8. It's nice to hear about older films. I enjoyed most of this when I saw it in the theater. It's certainly different, weird, and creepy. I like Radha Mitchell - too bad she had to act like a robot in Surrogates. Anyway, Silent Hill was certainly visually memorable, and I love Brotherhood of the Wolf and I've watched it a number of times.

  9. Hello there. Great post as usual. I really do enjoying seeing what you will post next. I hope you've had a wonderful weekend. Take care. Have a fantastic week ahead. Cheers!

  10. Tommy Salami:

    I have to watch the film again but I don't recall having too much problem with the acting in the last act... altho, wasn't Alice Krige's character a bit over-the-top? I actually liked Laurie Holden as the cop (she was even better in THE MIST).

    Joseph B:

    Ah, that is so cool you got to see it on the big screen. I'm still kicking myself for not making the trip to the multiplexes to catch it.

    The headless nurses was a great image to be sure and one that I always remember from this film. After watching the film I did pick up one of the version of the game. SILENT HILL 2 I believe because it was said to have a lot of imagery that was used in the film itself. I still have to make it all the way through, though.

    le0pard13 said...

    I hope you do check it out and I am curious to know what you think. Isn't BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF a cool film? Gans' take on CRYING FREEMAN is pretty good too. I wish he would make more films. The guy's got an obvious gift.

    And good call on Sean Bean in RONIN, one of my personal faves as well. He had a small role but was very effective.

    You are SO lucky to have seen THE THING and PRINCE OF DARKNESS on the big screen! Aigh, I am green with envy. That is very cool. As anyone who frequents this blog knows, I'm a huge Carpenter fan.

    Mark Salisbury said...

    I will have to check out EVERYTHING PUT TOGETHER. I also thought she was brilliant in HIGH ART which is where I first saw her... or maybe it was PITCH BLACK. I forget.

    Hokahey said...

    So Radha Mitchell's in SURROGATES? Hmm... I might have to check that out when it hits video even if it looks like a pretty weak film. Nice to see another fan of BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF.


    Thanks for stopping by, Keith. I had a pretty good weekend. I hope you did as well.