I would not want to spend any extended period of time in Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill. The French director’s adaptation of the well-regarded horror video game is unpleasant, sordid, frightening, and, in a rather perverse way, quite beautiful. Silent Hill is a good-looking film, but that on its own does not make it a successful film. There are plenty of movies that are spectacularly shot, or that have a great visual style about them, but that are deficient in other crucial departments, whether in the narrative, or in the dialogue, or in the overall direction. But some of these films find slight redemption in their aesthetic. Perhaps the quintessential example of this, at least for me, would be Ultraviolet, which I have previously written about; it is a terrible movie, but its world is well imagined, and its aesthetic carries a certain kind of charm so, if nothing else, the film is at least interesting to look at. While Ultraviolet is a spectacular example of this, the leader in the ‘good aesthetic, bad film’ clubhouse may very well be Silent Hill.
Silent Hill is very much a traditional horror film (it literally aims to horrify rather than just scare its audience) and like the preponderance of horror films released over the last two decades, its troubles are all story-related. Radha Mitchell plays Rose Da Silva, mother of the young Sharon. Sharon sees the ghost town Silent Hill in her nightmares, despite ostensibly having no link to it. Against her husband Christopher’s (Sean Bean) wishes, Rose sets out with Sharon on a road trip to Silent Hill, thinking that she might pacify Sharon’s night terrors by visiting the source of the problem. At the town’s outskirts, Rose crashes their vehicle and passes out, and by the time she wakes up Sharon has disappeared. Rose finds that the town is no deserted backwater—it appears to be alive, changing form seemingly at random, and spawning all manner of horrific zombie-like monsters. This is no picturesque vacation spot.
The plot—little girl sees visions and runs away—does not have a great deal of breadth and is not particularly complex, and yet it receives a muddy delivery by screenwriter Roger Avary (the man responsible for, among other things, The Rules of Attraction and parts of the script to Pulp Fiction). Given that our focus here is the film’s aesthetic, we need say no more than that the narrative is shoddily designed. An example: near the film’s conclusion, everything the audience needs to know—the answers to the town’s mysteries, some missing back story, and the like—is delivered summarily in a six minute montage. Condensed into a short highlight reel, the entirety of the film may as well not exist. In addition, and slightly more amusingly, the montage is affected with an old film stock effect, literally the kind of cheap, two-bit filter you’d find in Windows Movie Maker. It’s unclear where all this old film footage came from, who was there to film it, and where our protagonist Rose found a projector with which to play the footage. Electricity comes at a premium in Silent Hill, but such questions stand in the way of no montage.
Perhaps a poor narrative is to be expected from a video game movie, but I find this case particularly disappointing, because the film is so rich on a visual and aesthetical level. All horror films seek to affect the audience’s emotion in some way—some through jump scares (like Paranormal Activity), others with more prolonged, terrifying imagery (like The Blair Witch Project). As aforementioned, Silent Hill deliberately aims for the latter, and even a superficial analysis of the setting reveals how successful the film is in this regard.
The town of Silent Hill takes two forms: in its regular form it looks like a ghost town, and in the parallel darker ‘otherworld’ everything looks as if it has decayed and rotted away. Normally the town is saturated in a thick, stifling fog; ash drips from the sky like rain, covering and staining every surface; the streets and storefronts are neglected; and the town’s inhabitants (members of a doomsday cult) are hobbled, poor, and unsightly. Silent Hill is an oppressive place. It has a detached, lonely feeling that grows increasingly unpleasant as the film progresses. Nobody would pick Silent Hill as a place to cruise through out on a leisurely Sunday drive. The town’s ‘otherworld’ appearance is markedly different. Here it becomes positively gruesome: walls and buildings look almost as if they turn to flesh, with blood dripping from every corner; metal is rusted and furniture worn out; and mutated man-like creatures lurch from the shadows and shamble through buildings and onto the streets. This version of the town is truly horrific—by the director’s own phrasing, the audience should be “disgusted.” As viewers we are, in effect, trapped between two completely unviable options, two very unattractive worlds.
The goal is to make the audience feel what the protagonist feels—horror and disgust. Silent Hill does this to the majority of those who see it. Though the setting does make us uncomfortable, the film more directly achieves this effect with its monster design. The standout figure is the “Janitor,” a twisted anthropomorphic figure that slithers across the ground on its chest, dragging itself by its arms. Its legs are twisted over atop its body, almost touching its neck, and its head is pulled back, feet and head lashed together with barbed wire. It is shown to us for no more than fifteen seconds, but that is more than enough time for us to be repulsed by this ghastly, warped visage. And as troubled as we might be, it’s difficult to look away. The imagery is so perverse that it is almost as if we need to watch, to see its atrocious quality in full splendor. But despite that, Silent Hill never becomes unspeakably offensive. Saw, Hostel—and any horror film by Takashi Miike, for that matter—contain scenes of torture so nauseating that we (or rather, most ordinary folk) literally cannot watch. Miike’s Audition, for instance, has a woman poking a skewer through one of her lover’s eyes. Saw has people ‘swimming’ through pools of used syringes. It is not that Silent Hill is tame, though by contrast to those pictures it certainly seems so; rather, the horror here is tempered. Director Gans provides us with something that is highly repulsive, yet not so repulsive that we are unable to consume the imagery he feeds us. Against our better judgment, we do not turn from the Janitor’s freakish form.
In terms of aesthetic, Silent Hill is just about as good as it gets, at least for its genre The set and character design is excellent, and much of the film’s success actually comes from its subtlety. Most of the ‘otherworld’ is enveloped in shadow, and occasionally we’ll see flashes of something scary-looking in the corner of the frame—perhaps a corpse hanging from the ceiling, or strung up on a wall. It’s nothing that poses a risk to us or our protagonist, but because we only get a fleeting view of it, it sticks in our minds (almost subliminally) and appears to be more than it is. We’re left to fill in the blanks on our own, and what we imagine is all too often worse than what we actually see.
I suppose that Silent Hill is a unique case as far as design goes because, it being based on a series of video games, one might question the originality of what we see within. If the filmmakers simply pulled assets from the games and recreated them here, should we be touting the film’s visual impact as much as we do? At the very least, though we cannot attribute the creation of this world to the film, there is something to be said for adapting and realizing an environment, a style, and an atmosphere in a way that works in film, the kind of imagery that succeeds in striking a chord with the audience. It is unfortunate that same cannot be said of the film’s narrative. And I find Silent Hill to be an unfortunate case in this regard; there is a terrific amount of potential here, but much of it goes unrealized, languishing at the feet of a plot that is of less than ideal quality. At the very least, we are left with a film that is visually adroit, more so than most of its peers. Given the quality of most horror films today and the quality of video game adaptations in general, that’s a fairly good result.