In a year of outstanding horror titles, Judge Bill Gibron believes this atmospheric spectacle may just be the best of the lot.
Once you enter…there is no turning back.
What, exactly, is creepy? Is it the thought of unseen eyes peering at you from a crack in the closet doorway? A nondescript car following languidly behind you on a dark, otherwise deserted road? Is it the far-off sound of a scream, or the too-close-for-comfort whir of a chainsaw? Do you get the horror heebie-jeebies from the very idea of being alone in a lightless, pitch-black environment, or did the hairs always stand up on the nape of your neck when your parents asked you to take something down into the dimly lit world of your cold, clammy basement. Maybe simple stories of missing children, lost loves, or legendary crimes get your gooseflesh good and active, or perhaps you prefer your sense of the sinister on the more vague, ephemeral side. Whatever the case may be, you will definitely find this eerie emotion present in spine-chilling spades all throughout Silent Hill. In fact, this film is the literal definition of that fear-infused feeling. Everything that creepy is exists inside this amazing, mind-blowing movie. Who cares if it's based on something as cinematically sacrilegious as a video game? This is one of the best post-modern horror films ever made—and an incredibly effective creepfest to boot.
Facts of the Case
Young mother Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell, Finding Neverland) is at her wits' end. Her adoptive daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland, They) tends to walk in her sleep, and recently, the episodes have become very dangerous, indeed. Saving her daughter moments before she stumbled into a steep ravine, Rose hears her child scream a single phrase—Silent Hill. With research, she discovers it's the name of a ghost town in West Virginia. Hoping to help her troubled youngster, she heads off to the mysterious locale, much to her husband Christopher's (Sean Bean, The Island) chagrin. Along the way, Rose runs into a local police officer named Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden, The X-Files). After a confrontation, Rose tries to escape. A car crash later and she's right outside of Silent Hill; worse, her daughter is missing. As she enters the still, desolate town, Rose runs into a great many weird and frightening visions. While it appears deserted, someone—or worse, something—is still alive inside the ash-covered buildings. With the help of an equally stranded Cybil, Rose hopes to find her child. She'd better hurry, though. Whatever exists inside Silent Hill's deep, dark recesses and haunted halls is waiting…watching…and wanting …
Make no mistake about it, Silent Hill is sensational. It's the movie The Cell wanted to be, and the video game adaptation that best recreates what such entertainment experiences effortlessly manage—that is, luring you into an unknown world and experiencing the suspense and the dread of discovering it along with the keypad-manipulated characters. In fact, it is probably good to be unfamiliar with the long-running series from Japanese manufacturer Konami. Otherwise, you will waste valuable disbelief suspension in a seemingly endless attempt to pick out all the changes—both major and minor—that have been made to the game's narrative. It's safe to say that Silent Hill is as similar to the spooky storylines it is based on as it is different. If you're curious about the modifications, surf the 'net for a few minutes. You'll come up with a far more comprehensive list than this reviewer could ever provide. If you're more interested, however, in what a sensational piece of Gothic, Grand Guignol grandstanding this movie is, how it overflows with imagination, creepiness, and invention, then read on. It is here where you will learn how a French filmmaker took a top Asian title and transformed it into one of the darkest, most delightful horror experiences in a very long time.
Christophe Gans, in only his fourth major film, suddenly steps up in the ranks of the masters of motion picture macabre with a movie that is dripping with dread, overflowing with atmosphere, and so flagrant in its fear factors that you can't help but feel the narrative slowly start sinking under your skin. From the opening sequence, where Sharon, our little girl lost, is poised on the edge of a vertigo-inspiring ledge, to her mother Rose's first steps into the ghost town of the title, we realize we are in the hands of a true cinematic visionary. Very few modern filmmakers strive for distinction in style or subjectivity. They would rather borrow from established auteurs or do the journeyman routine for the sake of a paycheck. Not Gans. He's all about the imagery, the tactile way his buildings look, the nauseating way his demonic monsters appear…and move. Using cues both old-fashioned (churches as bastions of faith, and fallen evil) and post-modern (the civil defense-style siren that warns of the impending "darkness"), he is a filmmaker who is determined to chill us to our very marrow. Pulling out all the stops, then adding a few more that he's saved especially for such an occasion, he proves that 2001's cult hit The Brotherhood of the Wolf was no fluke. In fact, Silent Hill is so amazing, it nearly wipes out all memory of that past genre-bending epic.
Naturally, a movie like this can't get by on ideas alone. We need a script we can champion while it continually challenges us with clearly-defined characters that are easy to identify with. Thanks to Oscar winner Roger Avary (he shared the 1995 Academy Award with Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction), Silent Hill is not just some sloppy collection of recognizable moments from your Sony Playstation. Instead, it's a dense, deceptive little thriller with enough mood and menace to fill a dozen derivative horror films. As a matter of fact, this is more of a waking nightmare than an actual attempt at creating a creature feature. Sure, the Silent Hill canon of terrifying creations is present (Pyramid Head, the Nurses), but because of how Avary sets up the situations, we never once doubt their existence—or their horrifying intent. Similarly, the backstory set up for Sharon and Rose (sleepwalking child, adopted under questionable, unclear circumstances) instantly draws us in. All Avary has to do is create some memorable dialogue and a few fascinating action scenes, then let Gans do the rest. Luckily, this pairing works out perfectly, leaving little room for anything other than abject terror and a decidedly unsettled aura. From Rose's first run-in with the darkness (complete with a claustrophobic corridor, a single flame, and a horde of hideous beasties) to the surreal sturm-and-drang finale, we are truly in awe of the combination of plot and pictures.
In addition, we are treated to acting that is never cheap, never over the top, and never obvious for the sake of some camp or kitsch effect. While Sean Bean has very little to do as the outsider who views Silent Hill as the deserted burg everyone believes it is, he still manages to make us understand Christopher's familial concerns. Similarly, Kim Coates is a cop keeping a lot of secrets, only to be shuttled off screen a little too soon. Obviously, Gans believes that this is a woman's picture—not a chick flick, but a film similar to The Descent: that is, a chance for a strong female perspective on things usually relegated to men. As a result, we need ladies in the leading roles, and Gans comes up with a collection of magnificent performers. As our mother in distress, Radha Mitchell never missteps, even once. She is the perfect combination of fear and determination, drawing on bravery previously unknown inside herself to rescue her languishing little girl. As Sharon, genre fixture Jodelle Ferland (of Kingdom Hospital and the soon to be released Terry Gilliam film Tideland) is equally adept at moving from innocent to wicked as the scene requires. In the background is Laurie Holden, as tough-as-nails patrol officer Cybil Bennett. She's the other audience inroad into the story, the skeptical non-believer who eventually comes around to Silent Hill's numerous horrors. Along with Alice Krige doing another top-notch psycho turn and Deborah Kara Unger as a figure important to both the town and to Sharon, we end up with an ensemble that emphasizes the uncomfortable nature of the narrative.
But the final facet that really propels this entire project into the realm of a near-masterpiece is the fantastic, fatalistic art direction and effects. The work of a myriad of incredibly gifted craftsmen, the monsters, the entities, and the domain in which they dwell are rendered so faultlessly, from their inhuman elements to their slick CGI gloss (the moments when the "darkness" takes over, with its dripping walls and disintegrating fixtures are fascinating to watch) that they take on a life all their own. When we glimpse Pyramid Man dragging his massive blade toward our heroines, or when the nurses stand poised to slice and dice with their handy razors and knives, the level of dismay is almost indefinable. When we hear the plaintive wail of the warning siren, we stiffen in our chair, wondering what horrifying images we will be bombarded with next. Yes, there is blood. Indeed, there is gruesomeness. Still, the visions in Silent Hill do more than stimulate your gore-related gag reflex. They tickle parts of the brain that post-modern horror has long since stopped trying to excite.
As much as a feast for the eyes as a twist to the mind, Silent Hill stands alone as one of the best, most visually arresting fright flicks in a very long time. Certainly there will be those who scoff at such suggestions, taking umbrage with any claims that the film is anything other than an ineffective piece of eye candy. There will be others who argue for the video game's ability to inspire fear over the Hollywood bastardization of a favored title. The truth is that Silent Hill tells a deceptively simple story, realizes it exceptionally well, and has stellar acting and effects in case a backup is needed for some narrative clarity. Sure, the conclusion is open ended, never quite clear in what it means to the characters or the situation we've just witnessed, and the fact of the matter is that the whole set up in Silent Hill has an expositional familiarity that we feel we've witnessed before (without spoilers, it's the religious fanatics as evil entities paradigm at work). Still, with someone as gifted as Gans behind the lens and a wealth of genius craftsmen in front of it, it is hard to deny the movie's many jaundiced joys. Consider it an allegory on death and dying or a straight-ahead, magnificently realized monster movie, but Silent Hill is not some sloppy tie-in to a well-known video amusement. Years from now, when the games are gone, it will live on as an example of brilliant filmmaking done with expertise and proficiency. Forget what you've read elsewhere—this is one wicked delight that deserves to be seen.
Fresh from theaters after a wide release a mere five months ago, the technical aspects of the DVD version of Silent Hill are sensational. From the magnificent, moody Dolby Digital 5.1 mix to the practically pristine 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image, this is one amazing looking and sounding movie. Part of the fun in any fright film is the way in which the director manipulates the cinematic elements to amplify the eeriness. Gans's framing and compositions suggest artwork gone putrid, desaturated colors combining with plentiful details to create quite the corrupt canvas. As for the sonic situation, there is plenty to cheer—and fear—over. The back channels are overloaded with ambient noises and the spatial separation between people and creatures is ingeniously grasped. The music, featuring cues from the actual video game, is absolutely superb and adds greatly to the overall aura of the film. While not quite reference quality, it is safe to say that Silent Hill looks outstanding in this digital presentation.
As for extras, Sony does go a little light on the added content. One senses a double-dip Special Edition somewhere down the line. There is no commentary track, no in-depth look at the various technical elements in the film. Instead, all that is here is a rather lengthy, six-part featurette outlining the production process. We get a discussion on the video game, how Gans's fandom landed him the job, the casting and set design issues, as well as the stunts and the physical effects/CGI. Honestly, there is some great stuff here, interesting insights into how Silent Hill was created and how Gans emphasized the tactile nature of in-camera tricks versus the believability of bitmaps. Still, with a movie of this scope and level of accomplishment, a more thoroughly fleshed-out DVD package was and is warranted. Here's hoping we see another version of the title some time soon. If not, one may need to go to another region for bonus feature satisfaction.
Like the cold wind that blows through the woods during a particularly unpleasant autumn twilight at the edge of a forest, or the slowly creaking closet door that shouldn't be opening by itself in the middle of the night, Silent Hill defines frightening. It is disconcerting, disorienting, and disturbing. It draws on images both inventive and icky to trigger our synapses and amplify the fear, and does so in service of a solid story with amazing acting. As an accomplishment it argues for Christophe Gans as a visionary as valid as Guillermo Del Toro or Terry Gilliam, highlighting his promise as a motion picture artist to watch. If you enjoy your horror on the subtle, sinister side, if the optical wonders of dead, decaying worlds stimulate your own morbid curiosities, if getting your blood coursing through your veins like natural liquid nitrogen is your idea of a good time, then take a walk through this West Virginia locale. It's guaranteed to deliver the shivers and stand as an example of what technology and talent can do when used to complement, not contradict, each other. Silent Hill is indeed sensational. It's one of the most imaginative horror films in a long time.
Not guilty. All participants in the Silent Hill situation are acquitted and are free to go.
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