Silent Hill (2006)
Sharon Da Silva (Jodelle Ferland) is a troubled girl: she experiences recurring nightmares, during which she talks about a place called Silent Hill. Her foster mother Rose (Radha Mitchell) discovers that Silent Hill is the name of a ghost town in West Virginia, abandoned after a coal fire thirty years ago. Determined to learn what the town has to do with her daughter and to make the nightmares stop, Rose takes Sharon to Silent Hill, against the wishes of her husband Chris (Sean Bean). Through a set of circumstances, mother and daughter wind up in a car accident. When Rose awakens the next morning, she finds Sharon is missing, and immediately sets out to find her. But she discovers that something sinister is going on in fog-shrouded Silent Hill, as the town’s reality periodically burns away to reveal another world, where supernatural monstrous creatures, including man-eating roaches and a medieval executioner, break loose and attempt to kill anyone in their path. Will Rose find her daughter and make it out of there alive?
Silent Hill, the adaptation of the popular videogame by the same name, deserves far more credit than it gets. When it was released in theatres, its convoluted, deliberately ambiguous narrative largely alienated mainstream audiences by raising numerous questions, but rarely divulging any solid answers. How exactly do the main characters first arrive in Silent Hill? Are they alive or dead? Why do none of Silent Hill’s residents look any older than they did 30 years ago? The film intentionally leaves all these and many other mysteries unresolved, compelling viewers to come up with their own interpretations of the story. As a result, most were lost and confused as to what was going on in the film and why, which lead them to mislabel it a terrible, incomprehensible mess.
In actuality, the film’s only real flaw lies in its poorly written main protagonist. For an adult and intelligent mother who wants to protect her daughter, Rose is prone to making foolish and idiotic decisions. For example, when pulled over by police officer Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden), she inexplicably takes off at top speed - at night, on a wet and slippery road, disregarding Sharon’s safety. What exactly would she accomplish, other than putting her child’s life in danger? Wouldn’t it have been more rational to go through with the inspection? This makes her hardly sympathetic, and the film doesn’t spend enough time developing her character to make her action seem believable under the circumstances.
Then there’s also the extraneous subplot involving the character of Chris Da Silva (Sean Bean). Chris’s search for his family takes up nearly 15 minutes of screen time, but ultimately leads to dead ends and forces him to return home, without having any impact on the core story. So why exactly he would need to appear at all is anyone’s guess, though reportedly, the character was tacked on when studio executives complained that there were “no men” in the screenplay.1
These issues aside, however, Silent Hill is a visual masterpiece, with elaborate production and art designs and excellent cinematography. For example, watch as Rose advances inside the basement of a building in Silent Hill. Suddenly, without warning, the sound of a loud, anti-aircraft alarm signifies the town’s transformation – all natural light is blotted out, the floors and walls begin to burn away like layers of paper and the ground ruptures, revealing a fiery lava pit below a steel mill underground. It’s a terrifying sight - everything now looks burnt and decayed, as if the town had plunged into hell. Then, a group of shrieking, molten lava encrusted children appear out of nowhere and besiege Rose. But as quickly as they gang up on her, the children disappear – and the town reverts back to its normal “foggy” appearance. This scene is exemplary of how the film’s technical elements can come together to create a tense, twisted and macabre atmosphere that grabs your attention. While the realistic, creepy designs of the gothic creatures are already frightening, the film amps up the horror by showing them extensively, instead of having them pop up for a brief “shock” scare and vanish. There aren’t any MTV lightning-fast cuts - the pace is slow and deliberate, allowing us to soak in all the exquisite details of the town in both of its incarnations, as well as its abundant monsters. Thus, the film shows extreme subtlety and restraint in its execution, emphasizing mood and suspense, which is admirable in a time, when most modern horror films seem to depend on copious amounts of over-the-top violence and gore, frenetic pacing and camerawork to horrify their audiences.
The atmosphere that Silent Hill establishes with that one scene is sustained to the film’s conclusion, culminating in a blood-curdling “barb wire” finale. By presenting only a modicum of gore previously, Silent Hill releases all the built-up tension in a cathartic, disturbingly cool climax, especially notable for the beautifully haunting image of 12-year old Jodelle Ferland dancing and rejoicing as a fountain of blood rains down upon her.
All in all, Silent Hill is an underrated gem of our decade, a film full of beautiful, striking imagery and an unrelenting, terrifying atmosphere. People who expect a straightforward haunted house or monster movie may be put off and/or disappointed by Silent Hill’s lack of an easily comprehensible story. But beyond the shadow of a doubt, it is the best videogame-based movie made to date. I highly recommend it.
- DVDRama Interview with Christopher Gans: http://www.dvdrama.com/news-18185-interview-christophe-gans-silent-hill-partie-1.php