April 22, 2006

Movie Review: Silent Hill

What we have here is a masterpiece of surrealistic survival horror, or another attempt at intelligent horror that falls under the weight of its own pretensions. A third option could put it in between the two extremes, it is up to you to decide. I've made my decision, although I am not sure I will be able to adequately defend my position. Defend, interesting choice of words, and one I chose on purpose.

Occasionally a film comes around that connects with on a level that sucks you in and traps you with a malicious intent. That intent is to make you like it beyond all reason, you may realize that you are watching something that is somewhat less than good, but you are helpless in your enjoyment of said work. A recent example of a film's affect on me is Ultraviolet. Now, more to the point, another film has affected me in a similar, but in a far less pronounced manner.

Silent Hill is a film that eschews logic in favor of atmosphere, a film that sets out to put you into a nightmare. When you're trapped in a nightmare, logic has no place. I am aware that this movie was inspired by/based on a video game series, but I claim ignorance of the source. As an adaptation I am ill prepared to comment, but that doesn't stop me from having some thoughts!

The film centers on Rose and her adopted daughter, Sharon. We learn that Sharon is sick, with some unknown illness, and has a tendency to sleepwalk, and talk about Silent Hill. It seems that the key to her illness lies within the confines of the town, long since abandoned after a fire burned through it. Rose sneaks off with Sharon, leaving behind a rather upset husband, Chris.

The nightmare begins when Rose, with daughter in tow, turns off the main road and enters Silent Hill. The town is realized in all the shades of grey you can imagine, there is a layer of ash constantly falling, like a soft snow on the town. After the car crash, Sharon disappears, and Rose sets out with a single minded determination to find her. Along the way she is joined by a cop who does not quite understand the gravity of the situation. I do not wish to continue with too much more description, part of the joy I derived was watching as everything unfolded before me.

The town is incredible, a completely insulated nightmare. In this world anything can, and does happen, with no explanation required. Sure, there is a plot at work here, and the exposition is at times clunky and not exactly clear, but it is always interesting. More interesting, is the world of Silent Hill.

The greys pulse with life, strange things happen, horrible, horrifying things. This movie does not rely on the jump scare, rather we are faced with something much more terrifying. Unexplainable evil lurks in the darkness. Rose runs around town, doing a lot of things that a rational person would not do, but this just adds to the effectiveness of the nightmare. Things move out of the corner of your eye, drawing your attention away from the real danger. The trailers have given a glimpse of what you can expect to find, statuesque nurses, with blades at the ready, strange, pod-like people, burned children, giant bugs, and Pyramid-head. I don't know what else to call the guy, although I believe that is how the game character is referred to. He has a couple of big scenes, and boy are they impressive, what a wonderfully designed bad guy.

Director Christophe Gans has an absolutely wonderful visual style. Combine that with Dan Laustsen, the director of photography, gives the movie a unique and intriguing film to look at. Gans has delivered a film of vision and ambition. Silent Hill wears its ambitiousness on its sleeve, and that may be a bit off-putting, but it is a great step forward for big screen horror. That brings me to the biggest pitfall, the script. Roger Avary has written a script that has a lot of ground to cover. It does the big stuff well, but falls short in many of the smaller scenes of character interaction. Some of the things that are called to say come across as a bit silly, unintentionally comic. The dialog is in an over stylized form, or under stylized if you prefer, in either case it seems unnatural, clunky, and out of place. Given a few more rewrites, combined with the existing film, and this film would jump up a few notches.

That leads me to the effects work, which is really good. There is very little CG work, a refreshing switch. The creatures are some real nasty pieces of work, designed by Patrick Tatopoulos. Creepy, dangerous, scary, and most importantly, real. There is a big difference between watching a computer effect, and something that is really there. When done well, the real thing is much scarier.

The acting varies from poor to good, with plenty of in between. Radha Mitchell stars as Rose, sadly the character is forced to do some silly things, but she does a great job during her many scenes of creepy peril. Sean Bean plays her husband, Christopher, and is solid as usual. The worst would have to be Laurie Holden as our intrepid cop. There is something that just doesn't quite ring true with her. On the otherside, there are a pair of memorable performances from actresses that take their characters to the precipice of the absurd, and make it work. First is Deborah Kara Unger as Dahlia, the outcast mother of the demon (that was a mouthful!), she holds much knowledge, but is considered to be a sinner not worthy of listening to. The second is Alice Krige as the religious zealot Christabella, leading the townsfolk on their cleansing rampages where the punish the sin, not the sinner (nope, you read that right). Finally there is a performance that seems to have multiple personality disorder, Jodelle Ferland as Sharon. Her performance early on is awful, her Sharon was annoying and felt like a child trying to play a child, but later on when a different nature is revealed, she is as creepy as anything in the movie, and there are some pretty darn creepy things.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is the music. It is not your standard score, nor is it a collection of popular music. The original music covers a lot of ground, from light piano and violin compositions, to a tapestry of industrial noises, to an almost hip-hop style beat. All of these sound styles are used effectively in the scenes they are needed in. They never feel out of place, and adds a little flavor to the piece.

Despite the numerous lines of laughable dialog, and some bad acting, this movie grabbed me by the throat and had me on the edge of my seat for the entire film. Each time the siren went off and the screen went black, I got a little edgier, anticipating some new nasties to appear. The barebones plot may be easily plucked, the explanation is a little tougher, and as impenetrable as it is, it is completely satisfying.

It is nice to see a horror film with such ambition, an attempt to show us something new and different. It is not another remake, nor is it a torture film, nor is it a rollercoaster of jump scares, rather it creates an atmosphere and uses that as a tool to dig into the viewer's psyche.

Bottomline. Not completely effective, but it was enough to win me over and take me on the journey through a mother's nightmare. A wonderfully eerie visual style leads the way. I urge you to take a trip to Silent Hill. Perhaps you will find it as intriguing as I.

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Anonymous said...

Hmmmmm. Well, very interesting review of a movie I have not even seen as of yet. I was searching the internet for opinions on this movie and found your favorable review. While appreciating your honest views, I was rather set back at your use of "big words". I believe myself to be pretty smart and knowledgable of all those big words (I understand what you are saying completely). I could, however, not get over the fact that you are trying to simply pick your language style to have yourself sound learned. A bit over the top, I felt as if you were talking down to readers. A little advise, if you can take it through all the sour faces you must have given by now... talk to me, the reader, as if I was a regular joe. Do not see how many big words you can fit into a sentence to impress me with your knowledge outside of the real reason for your article, the movie review. I think the problem with so many movie reviewers out there is they have lost their place among the people. What it really boils down to is that a movie reviewer is simply someone such as myself, they go to see movies and like to tell their friends which ones they liked and which ones they did not. Reviewers simply get to put their opinions down on paper for strangers to read. I think that along with that ability, there becomes a bit of self induced higher standing, a bit of pretension. My final comment to you, if it even matters at this point, is that you should try speaking with a real voice. Understand that no one speaks as you write. And if a friend were to come up to me and verbally give me a review in your written words, I would fall over laughing. I would think to myself, "Wow, I bet their English teacher back in grade school loved their use of a thesaurus."

Chris said...

Wow, interesting commentary. You think I have lost touch wiuth the regular people? I think you give me too much credit. For what it's worth, no one writes an article/column/review/book the way the speak. If they did the work would be unreadable. That said, I don't feel I used all that many "big words." I also do not htik I was talking down to my readers, I don't really have that many to begin with. And I was speaking with a real voice, mine. Even when speaking it is nice to make use of an expanded vocabulary, too many people limited to what they hear in music and the sports pages. I am not referring to you, but I am sure you know people like that.

In any case, thank you for taking the time to comment, and I hope you enjoy the movie, should you choose to see it.

Anonymous said...

you made a spelling error, i believe...

'wait of pretentions...'

shouldn't it be 'weight'

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I am a big fan of the game. It's much more of a visual game than a plot-based one, and it certainly beats out Resident Evil in that aspect.

Good review man.

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