Silent Hill is either a work of total genius or a complete piece of crap. Honestly, I can’t decide.
The film is based on the videogame of the same name, which is hardly a hallmark of high quality. From Super Mario Brothers right up until BloodRayne, videogames have proven themselves very poor fodder for big-screen adaptation. Hollywood executives have yet to figure out that videogames rarely provide any sort of foundation upon which to build a story. Witness the recent box office disappointment Doom, based on the videogame in which you the player wander around and shoot things with big weapons. The result was a movie in which The Rock wandered around and shot things with big weapons. Or how about the newest videogame-turned-movie, the recently announced Driver? It’s based on the videogame in which you drive. I can see how that radical, never-before-attempted concept has got Hollywood all excited. (Hypothetical pitch meeting: “It’s a movie about driving. Throw in Heath Ledger and the screenplay writes itself.”)
On the plus side, Silent Hill is not directed by videogame-turned-movie mogul Uwe Boll (House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark and BloodRayne--plus the upcoming Dungeon Siege, Postal and Far Cry, god help us). Hill is, instead, headed up by French madman Christophe Gans. Gans’ last outing was the 2001 film Brotherhood of the Wolf, an insanely entertaining action flick that somehow combined Medieval French history, martial arts and giant monsters. As over-the-top a pastiche as Brotherhood of the Wolf was, it somehow worked, selling its mad genre mash-up with a combo of style, action and sheer chutzpah.
Silent Hill comes from a screenplay by former Quentin Tarantino partner Roger Avery (writer of Killing Zoe and The Rules of Attraction--plus the upcoming Driver, god help us). I daresay if anyone but Gans had directed it, it would be an unmitigated disaster. In its current state, it is a tantalizingly mitigated disaster.
The film stars Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black) as Rose DaSilva, a harried mother trying to care for her troubled adopted daughter. Seems little Sharon (too-cute moppet Jodelle Ferland) suffers from strange night terrors and severe sleepwalking. Since she always wakes up from these spells shouting the words, “Silent Hill,” mom decides the best course of action (aside from medication/psychotherapy/etc.) is to find the mysterious location and take her daughter there. Makes sense.
Rose hops into her SUV and drives off to the titular town, a creepy, fog-enshrouded ghost town in Virginia. Seems something nasty happened in the town circa 1974. Now, the town is abandoned, save for the assorted ghosts, monsters and demons who patrol its streets with shocking regularity.
As soon as mother and daughter set foot in Silent Hill, Sharon runs off, prompting Rose to spend the rest of the movie chasing after her, running through assorted claustrophobic streets/hallways shouting, “Sharon! Sharon!” This grows extremely wearying. Seriously, at least 30 pages of this film’s script contain no dialogue other than the word “Sharon!” A little more judicious editing would have given this film something resembling tension.
As time goes on, though, things get weirder and weirder. Silent Hill is ultimately portrayed as some sort of extradimensional purgatory in which the forces of good (maybe) constantly battle the forces of evil (or something to that effect). We’ve got swarms of monstrous beetles, self-immolating children and an oily, pyramid-headed muscleman carrying the big-honkin’est sword in the free world.
I can see what Gans was going for, pushing the film into the sort of surreal nightmare realm of Dario Argento (Suspiria, Inferno) or maybe even David Lynch (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive). The invisible plot threads that link demonic children, Puritan witchhunters, rural mineworkers and dudes with really big swords are left purely to the imagination of viewers. None of this film makes a lick of sense, but there are moments when it evokes an eerily effective dreamlike state. Horror isn’t about logic, argues Gans, it’s about feeling. Admittedly, there were moments in Silent Hill when I felt decidedly unsettled. But there were also a great many times when my brain was screaming, “What in the holy Hell is going on here?”
Is Christophe Gans, like, way smarter than us? Is Silent Hill a surreal art film on par with Eraserhead? Are we just missing the soul-shattering cosmic point of it all? ... Eh, I’m afraid not.