Friday, 19 July 2013

Silent Hill - Movie Review

It is almost a universal law that any adaptation of a video game into a film is going to be terrible. The reverse is also generally true (because of the way Hollywood sees games as tie-ins as opposed to something requiring independent development*) but those usually can be safely ignored - but the movies seem to a lot more intrusive, and a lot more likely to rile up fans of that particular game or series.

The list of awful movies based on video games is long, sad and should mostly be ignored (I'm not going to bother even mentioning them) but in this review I want to talk about a film that is almost there for me -Silent Hill.

For those of you who have never played any of the games, Silent Hill is an abandoned, deserted town in which a steady rain of ash falls unceasingly on the streets and seriously weird, aggressive creatures stalk the roads and inside the buildings. Also it occasionally turns into a red industrial nightmare version of itself, with the very walls becoming flesh and even weirder monsters looking to tear our protagonist limb from limb, or at the very least make him change his or her trousers.

This is one of the less disturbing ones
Also, depending on the entry, the monsters are either the delusions of a half-mad telekinetic teenager who's been tortured by an insane cult for seven years or the projections of the protagonist trying to deal with his own guilt, grief and sexual frustration. Yeah, they're kinda messed up.

Taking its cue from the first Silent Hill, but using elements from the second and third, the film initially follows the first game pretty closely (bar the gender of the protagonist) as Rose de Silva takes her daughter to the town after she mentions it a lot while sleep walking, crashes, wakes up to an empty car and goes looking for her missing daughter. This is all packed into the first ten minutes or so, and gets the situation set up and the town front and centre from the get-go. After that, it's only a matter of time before the sirens sound** and everything literally goes to hell - a red industrial nightmare as opposed to the blue-and-grey ash fever-dream that is the town's 'normal' state.

However, this is where the first of the film's problems appear. The film relies for its effects extremely heavily on CGI - the monsters, the transition between the two 'versions' of the town and especially the chaotic ending have all been made in a computer, which particularly does a disservice to the monsters as believing they are actually there is key to them being scary. Also the monsters are never really elaborated on. Sure, there are certainly theories one could come up with, but ultimately they are just creepy looking monsters - obstacles for the protagonist to get by or escape.

The second problem is that the characters themselves don't even seem that bothered by them. After Rose and Cybil (a patrol cop along for the ride) encounter the film equivalent of the thing in the picture above neither of them takes a moment to even go "What the HELL was that?!" It may be a function of the fact the plot needs to get moving, but the two ladies seem to acclimatize to the town awfully quickly, and recover rapidly from encounters with Silent Hill's less pleasant occupants when not under immediate threat.

This of course takes away the most important thing the games had going for them. At their best, a sense of suffocating dread and doom surrounded you, as you feared to pry open doors or couldn't solve puzzles because you were too disoriented and scared to think straight. Silent Hill 2 is still one of the most intensely terrifying experiences I have ever had. This film has nowhere near that level of sustained, harrowing horror.

The final problem is that the scenes in which Rose's husband and Sharon's father search for them in the non-supernatural version of Silent Hill stop the movie absolutely dead. As much as I love Sean Bean, the film would be better if these scenes were cut completely. It could be done very easily as well with no loss in story - that's how useless they are.

Not necessary

Yet despite these problems (and for most people, they tank the film) I stubbornly return to the fact that I like this film. While it doesn't scare, it does create a dream-like atmosphere all of it's own. The film is about Rose being trapped in a terrifying emotional puzzle box - an alternate dimension in which she must figure out the rules in order to get her daughter back. As a scary horror film, it's a bit lacking, but as a trip into a bizarre world with a radically different morality it works very well.

The film also effectively pillages the soundtracks of the games as well, and combining this with the mostly awesome set design creates a fascinating tapestry on which the events of the film play out.

So should you watch it? Sure. There's enough interesting stuff going on to distract you from how not-very-scary it is and it differentiates itself from the games enough that it's not an automatic either/or thing. The problems may be too much for some and they never completely vanish at any point so complete satisfaction is unlikely, but it's alright. I like it, but then again I like a lot of things.

One thing I noticed on this viewing (and was amazed I hadn't noticed before) was how dominated by women this film is. There are virtually no male roles in this at all (at least no useful ones - see above) - the story is about a mother searching for her daughter with a badass cop who happens to be a woman and coming into contact with various female antagonists. This is a movie that passes the Bechdel Test and then some, which is exceptionally rare when it comes to horror.

In fact, the only useful 'male' character is the creature credited as the 'Red Pyramid'. He has a pointed pyramid for a head, is immensely strong, and assaults women in this film with a massively long sword. Put it this way - he ain't subtle.

"I enjoy my work as a walking rape metaphor"

And even he is shown to be either the servant or created delusion of a powerful female force.

Silent Hill might be the most feminist horror movie ever made. 


* The exceptions to this rule generally occur are when there is a big enough gap between the release of the movie and the game. The best example is probably Goldeneye.

** I watched this with a bunch of people once before we all went to bed. Next morning at around 7 am me and the guy I was sharing a room with discovered the school bell across the road sounded exactly like the sirens from this. We weren't fully awake, so we both panicked a bit before realizing what it was and then felt a bit sheepish.

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