I recall going to see Silent Hill after it first came out. I went with some friends who also enjoyed the video game series, despite the fact that we were all well aware of the fact that there had never been a good film adaptation of a video game. Two hours later, there still hadn’t been. Our primary evaluation of it, as I recall, boiled down to “Man, that was boring.” After watching it again this week, my primary evaluation now boils down to “Man, that was boring and also GROSS, holy hell, jeeze, wow.”
A primer—Silent Hill The Movie is based on Silent Hill The Video Game Franchise—specifically, it’s kind of based on parts of Silent Hills 1, 2, and 3 (though it’s not a direct adaptation at all). Silent Hill 2 in particular is widely regarded as one of the most thoughtful, frightening, and adult horror video games ever made, and that reputation made it an attractive candidate for film adaptation. In the franchise, there is a town called Silent Hill. It seems to be a nice enough place and lots of people live there, but there is something…off about it. Bad things happened there. In his writings on the topic of horror, Stephen King often references the idea of the Bad Place—the place where everybody knows you just “don’t go.” Maybe it’s the old abandoned hospital down the road, maybe it’s that one room on the second floor where it’s always a little cold, maybe it’s a whole town. Wherever it is, the place itself is somehow diseased and malignant, drawing in those with bad intentions and corrupting those without. This is Silent Hill. In every game, a guilt-ridden protagonist is drawn to the town for one reason or another and put through the wringer. There are three versions of the town which characters cycle through—the regular, “real” version of the town; a foggy, mostly-abandoned version of the town; and a dark, decrepit, decaying hellscape version of the town. There are also monsters.
Look, I hate to do it (I don’t actually, I love talking about video games), but this movie only makes sense when compared to its video game counterpart. That comparison also makes very clear exactly why the games are a pinnacle of the horror genre and the movie adaptation is a boring, if ultra-violent slog.
First, the plot of the movie. Before we get too far in, I do feel I should note—this movie, for all its bad boringness, contains a lot of really shocking violence against women. Please be warned.
Ok. So. There is a family. Rose (Radha Mitchell), her husband Sean Bean (Sean Bean), and their adoptive daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferdland). Sharon has a bad habit of trying to sleepwalk into traffic and off cliffs, which is fairly upsetting. She also tends to sleep-shout a lot about a town called Silent Hill, though she claims to not know what or where that is when asked later. Rose decides it would be best to actually take her daughter to this town and see if…I dunno, a little sightseeing cures her sleepwalking habit, I guess. Her plan is not clear. Sean Bean wants to get Sharon actual medical help, but that’s a bridge too far for Rose. She kinda-sorta kidnaps Sharon and they take off for Silent Hill, with Sean Bean in hot pursuit.
They discover that Silent Hill is actually abandoned, due to a massive underground fire in a coal mine which is slowly consuming the town from below and emitting poison gas all over the place. (This is a real thing that can happen, by the way—look up the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania!) Nevertheless, Rose thinks this would be a good and helpful place to bring her young daughter. (Spoiler alert: No.)
They’re spotted on the way in by a cop named Cybil (Laurie Holden), who chases them into the abandoned town. In the course of trying to evade the police at night with her young daughter on a small two-lane unlit forest road with which she is totally unfamiliar, Rose crashes her car. (In case it’s not clear, I think Rose is a remarkably irresponsible parent, even for a horror movie.) When Rose comes to, everything is super-foggy and Sharon is gone. She kinda runs around the town for a while looking for her and then the town turns into a decrepit hellscape and Rose gets scared. Then it stops and Cybil shows up and tries to arrest Rose. When they discover that all the roads out of town are now just sheer cliffs into foggy nothingness, they agree that something seems a bit weird around here. Then a monster attacks them. Cybil straight-up shoots it in the face and Rose takes the opportunity to flee. Oh, this whole time, someone (could it be…a ghost?!?!) has been leaving stupid mysterious spoooooooky childlike drawings depicting various town landmarks laying around in an attempt to emotionally manipulate Rose, which totally works because Rose has no self-awareness or impulse control.
Anyway, Rose runs away to wherever the drawings indicate (a spooky hotel? a spooky school? a spooky hospital? trick question—it’s all three!) and sees some more monsters. Then she meets up with Cybil again and this time they team up because Cybil is like “Yeah, this place sucks.” Eventually, after some more monsters, they encounter a bunch of weirdos who have been trapped in the town for decades. They’re members of a crazy witch-burning religious cult, natch, but they seem affable enough until they catch a look at Rose’s locket picture of Sharon. Sharon, it turns out, looks JUST like the little girl they all burned ritually for some reason like 30 years ago because they’re fucking nutjobs. They freak out, understandably, and try to kill Rose and Cybil. Cybil beats the bejesus out of a few of them so that Rose can escape and then just kinda…gives up, I guess because the scriptwriters ran out of things for her to do in the movie. The cultists beat her up and then kind of roast her alive over a spit. It’s really awful, and it’s actually only the second-worst death a woman receives in the movie. (We’ll get to that in a moment.)
Meanwhile, Rose finally encounters the big evil ghost that’s been haunting the town—it’s the daughter of one of the townspeople, the one who got burned (but not to death!) all those years ago. Turns out said daughter, named Alyssa, had been…sigh…raped and impregnated by a janitor at her school. She then had a daughter, I guess, who was the manifestation of all the “goodness” left in her soul. The daughter is Sharon! Sharon, it turns out, has an evil ghost twin named “Dark Alyssa,” who is the personification of all the not-goodness in Alyssa’s soul. This information is portrayed via a ’70s filmstrip-style flashback that seriously goes on for like 15 minutes. There came a point where I kind of thought the whole rest of the movie was going to look like Rob Zombie’s home movies. Eventually, the ghost (played by the same girl who plays Sharon, who, by the way, has been captured by the cult and forced to watch Cybil burn to death) offers Rose a deal—bad ghost will help get Rose’s daughter back in exchange for Rose smuggling the bad ghost into the church where the cult lives (their “faith” keeps the bad ghost out of the church specifically). Rose, in keeping with her poor and impulsive decision-making, IMMEDIATELY agrees to a deal with the clearly-demonic creature.
She heads back to the church, confronts the cult (led by a woman named Christabella, played by Alice Krige) and gets stabbed in the heart for her trouble. All her blood falls out, but this turns out to have been part of the plan (though it’s unclear whether the bad ghost actually TOLD Rose she’d get stabbed in the heart). Her now-evil blood corrupts the church, bad ghost shows up, and everyone is ripped apart by barbed wire. Rose and Sharon escape and flee the town. Sean Bean (who has been ineffectively searching for his vanished wife and child this whole time) is sad at his house. Rose and Sharon show up at the house but oh no! They can’t see Sean Bean and he can’t see them! They’re still trapped in the otherworldly Silent Hill dimension! The end, thanks for watching!
This movie is boring and long. There’s no reason for many of the characters to behave the way they do, particularly Rose. It’s not scary, though it is deeply unpleasant. It misunderstands what makes a movie scary vs. what makes a video game scary on a fundamental level.
Take Silent Hill 2, for example. In that game, the main character is a man named James. His wife Mary died of an illness some time ago, but one day he receives a letter from her, asking to meet him in their “special place” in Silent Hill. He is drawn into the town, where he is met with a woman named Maria. Maria is physically identical to his dead wife, but her personality is…off. She claims to have never met James before and have no knowledge of Mary. Eventually, we learn that James himself actually murdered Mary, out of desperation to escape her lingering sickness. His guilt over this act was so immense that he repressed the memory of having done so, convincing himself that she died naturally. Everything encountered in the entire game is an extension of this guilt—the monsters are grotesquely hyper-sexualized, because James had to repress his sexual urges during his wife’s illness. Maria acts in all the ways James believed he wanted Mary to act but is repeatedly murdered in front of James by a horrific monster called Pyramid Head, in order to remind him of his guilt. The endings of the game are determined directly by various elements of player input, not all of it immediately intuitive. For instance, one of the things that affects the ending is how often you, the player, examined the photo of Mary that James carries in his inventory/wallet. If you look at it enough, the game interprets this as James feeling genuine guilt over his act, which is what Silent Hill wants him to feel. (This level of psychological complexity and examination of adult fears would be pretty remarkable even for a video game released today, much less one that was released in 2001.)
Interactions like this are the key to why the games work and the movie doesn’t. The game is a push and pull between itself and the player. The player is forced into the character’s psyche in a way that simply can’t be emulated in film. In a game, slowly walking through a fog-shrouded ghost town is tense, because YOU don’t know when something will jump out at YOU. In a movie, watching someone slowly walk through a fog-shrouded ghost town is…a little boring.
Additionally, so much of what makes Silent Hill 2 scary is that it does a good job of putting you, the player, in James’ shoes and then keying in all the monsters and events of the game to tap on his psyche like a rock hammer. In the game, Pyramid Head is an unstoppable beast, a frightening, man-shaped creature with a bizarre triangular cage around his head and an immense, phallic sword. He directly expresses James’ rage, his sexual frustration, and his guilt and subconscious desire for punishment. In Silent Hill The Movie, Pyramid Head turns up mostly just because he’s famous and kinda freaky-looking. There’s no “there” there, to quote Gertrude Stein.
That’s not to say that video games are automatically scarier than movies at all—it’s just that you can’t directly pull sequences from one and put them into the other, because the mediums don’t offer identical experiences to viewers/players. The same techniques lifted directly just won’t work. It is no coincidence that a common criticism of some movies is “Meh, it felt like a video game” and a common criticism of some video games is “Meh, it felt like a movie.”
So Silent Hill The Movie fails to be scary, it fails to understand what makes its source material scary (the cult stuff is all from the games, but in the games, it’s mostly incidental to the psychological torment of the main characters—in the movie, the cult is the whole thing), and it even fails to be passably entertaining.
That said, the movie does pass the Bechdel Test consistently and thoroughly. The main characters are all women, all of whom have a great deal of agency (or at least as much as possible in ghost-controlled hell town). However, this movie also features three of the most remarkably graphic, gruesome deaths, each inflicted on a woman. Pyramid Head tears a cult member’s, well, her whole skin off at one point, the aforementioned Cybil-burning is really drawn-out and the camera does not flinch away at all, and, at the end, the cult leader gets the Evil Dead-molesting-tree treatment with a bunch of possessed barbed wire (though the evil little girl ghost dancing happily in the rain of blood this murder produces was enough of an unexpected black comedy moment to get a laugh out of me).
These are the only moments that approach true horror in the film, but I don’t think they’re scary in the way the director meant them to be scary. They’re mostly just deeply, deeply unpleasant to watch. I can’t tell whether the director (Christoph Gans, from a Roger Avary screenplay) meant this as some kind of feminist statement or, at least, statement ON feminism, but the effect is so grotesque that it really doesn’t matter. Unless you’re getting there by way of PlayStation Road, Silent Hill is a town to be avoided.
– There’s a sequence where Rose has to escape from a bunch of freaky nurse-monsters. (Hello again monster that actually makes sense in the context of Silent Hill 2 and James’ fucked-up attraction to the nurses that tended to his sick wife, but has no personal meaning or connection to Rose!) Taken solely as a little bit of tense film-making, it’s pretty effective. They’re attracted to/activated by light, so she has to ease her way through a mob of them in the dark. Then she accidentally gets them all to kill each other. Whoopsie-daisy!- I genuinely enjoyed how quickly Rose agreed to team up with the evil ghost. Lil’ Miss Beelzebub barely got the figurative contract on the table before Rose was signing on the dotted line.
– A surprising amount of the movie is heavily reminiscent of the original Wicker Man, though, again, with at best a tenuous grasp on what made that movie effective.
– If you want to have a creepy kid in your movie, the LAST thing you should ask them to do is ACT CREEPY. What makes creepy kids creepy is their apparent innocence. When a kid walks up and starts breaking it down like Charlie Manson, it doesn’t get scary so much as it does kinda pathetic. I’m an adult man, kid! I could take you in a fight, no matter how much you claim that you are the reaper and this town is the wheat!