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Silent Hill
Tonight's Feature Presentation

SILENT HILL (2006)

Starring: Radha Mitchell, Laurie Holden, Sean Bean, Jodelle Ferland, Alice Krige, Deborah Kara Unger

Written By: Roger Avary Directed By: Christophe Gans

The Short Version

This is a very creepily stylish movie; who knew you could do so much with grey?

If you don’t get it, don’t worry: you won’t need to in order to be creeped out.

One of the best movies out there based on a video game.

Whether you’ve played the games or not, if you like horror, Silent Hill is worth watching.

Whether you end up liking it or not, Silent Hill will stick with you.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

GRILLED CHEESE.

Burnt over a slow coal fire.  It’s tasty even with the slight char, but no matter how much you grill it, it still won’t tell you what it’s all about.


Pairs Well With...

MAGIC HAT HEX.

Tasty beer with a smoky finish and a name that evokes an image of witches.

“Fire doesn’t cleanse.  It blackens!”


Oh, if only certain folks got that memo over the course of the past thousand-odd years.  But anyway.

Silent Hill ranks as one of the best movies ever to have been made based on a video game.  [From what I’m told, despite some name changes and other alterations here and there, the movie is even reasonably true to the games.  I will take this on faith from people I know who’ve played the games, as I have not myself.  Regardless, the above statement simply reflects its quality as a movie, and that I can judge with certainty.]  Whether you’ve actually played the game or not, it stands as a visually gripping, incredibly stylish, and often haunting horror story that will stick with you in the end regardless of whether or not you decide that you actually enjoyed the movie.

There’s something good to be said for that.

Let’s get the picture started, shall we?

Rose and Christopher Da Silva (Radha Mitchell and Sean Bean) are an affluent but otherwise reasonably typical suburban couple.  Their young adopted daughter, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), though, has some issues.  Specifically, she has a tendency to sleepwalk, and that sleepwalking is not simply confined to the house.  It’s as though her subconscious mind wants her to go someplace else, someplace from Sharon’s unknown past.  When she talks in her sleep, she keeps mentioning a place called “Silent Hill.”  Desperate to relieve whatever inner turmoil is gripping her daughter, Rose decides to take Sharon on a road trip to seek out Silent Hill, over Christopher’s objections and without bringing him along.  Though she may have found reasonable road directions and a story of a coal fire online, nothing could prepare Rose for what will happen once she gets there…

And I don’ think you’ll be quite prepared, either.

With Silent Hill, it all starts, plays, and finishes with atmosphere.  That atmosphere of this movie is just as much a character as Rose or Sharon are, and it is best described with a single word that so many horror films strive for but few achieve: haunting.

Director Christophe Gans (whose Brotherhood of the Wolf is also a breathtaking visual feast, though of a different color) gives viewers a taste of what he’s about during the opening sequence, which involves Sharon sleepwalking through suburbia and very nearly going off a cliff.  This is not point / shot / peek over the side / okay we’re done here stuff like one might expect from a typical filmmaker; Gans gives this sequence scope.  The audience is given a very good look at that ledge, including a distance perspective shot from over the side, and there’s no questioning that Sharon missed taking a very scary step indeed.  At the same time, even though it’s the middle of the night, the color is rich and vibrant, alive even in shadow.  It is actually quite breathtaking.  Any director would be thrilled to have that kind of shot as a focal point in his film.

For Gans, this is small stuff; just a tease.  The real feast comes later, and from a far more challenging environment.  The real feast is in Silent Hill itself.

It starts at the outskirts of town, which are shrouded in a thick, dense fog.  The sign alongside the road is deceptively simple: it says “Welcome To Silent Hill.”  You’ll be amazed at how creepy the memory of that sign will feel after a while.  Indeed, sometimes when I’m out driving in the fog, I find myself expecting the sign to appear around the next bend.

The fog is omnipresent.  Whenever you see it on the screen, Gans makes you feel it around your seat and on your skin.  Fog has long been used by filmmakers to create a creepy or otherworldly effect, but no film has ever been nearly as effective with its use as Silent Hill.

The town itself, we are told, has been abandoned.  Some time ago, a fire broke out that lit the coal in the mines beneath the town, and the fires beneath the earth have been burning ever since.  [This detail is based on the real town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, which had to be abandoned after a similar coal fire that continues to burn even four decades later.]  Along with the fog, there is ash, giving everything in Silent Hill a grey hue that drowns out much of the color.  There’s no one to be seen; the town is dead.  The movie theatre has a double bill that might or might not give you some ideas.  The atmosphere is creepy, cold but charred and hot at the same time.  It chills the bone even as the hair on your arms is slightly but not quite uncomfortably singed.  And you always have a nagging feeling that you should be looking over your shoulder.

This kind of atmosphere is difficult enough to maintain for a single minute.  Gans will maintain it for the entire time that the town appears on the screen in this fashion.  It never slips; not once.  Given the fact that the production design has removed most of the color cues, this is an even more remarkable feat.  One can imagine Ingmar Bergman asking for Gans’ autograph.

It gets creepier.

There is also another side to Silent Hill.  Sometimes, the ashen grey gives way to charred black highlighted by glowing orange embers and the patina of old metal.  Walls which already appeared in disrepair now have their covering shrivel completely as though burned.  What before was creepy is now actively scary.

That’s when the residents of Silent Hill appear.

They take many forms.  Some look like people wearing gas masks.  Some look like nightmarish visions out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting or the notebooks of HP Lovecraft.  Here is a hulking menace with a metal pyramid for a head.  There is something just plain unspeakable.  They’ve all got pipes, or worse, and they don’t like visitors.  They also appear to have joints that bend in unnatural ways, and a stutter-stop style of movement that is far more frightening than normal running.  (Gans doesn’t cheat here, either.  Those monsters with the bizarre movements aren’t special effects.  They’re dancers.  Their movements look organic despite the mechanical twitch because they are.  This is particularly striking during the sequence with the nurses, which is easily one of the creepiest scenes in the film.)

As with the grey ash and fog, every time this aspect of Silent Hill comes to the fore, the disturbing atmosphere is maintained.  It never skips; not once.

The transition to and from either of these modes – the grey ash or the blackened char – is equally compelling.  It scares the Hell out of Rose, and your heart’s racing right along with hers.

There’s also a third Silent Hill; one that Rose never sees.  Christopher does, though, and the superimposition of these two versions of the town is a masterwork of style and editing.  You’ll see something like that elsewhere, too, but that’s for you to discover.

As if you hadn’t guessed already, Silent Hill is visually flawless.  I can’t level a single complaint against it.  Indeed, the more consideration I give to it, the more impressive it gets. 

This is backed by a creepy score (which sources tell me takes all of its cues from the games), along with one of the most effective uses of a classic rock song to enhance a mood; namely, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as an accent to the burning coal below, and more.

And then, of course, there’s the cast.

We’ll start with Radha Mitchell, who plays Rose perfectly.  The character is deceptively simple: concerned mother who will do anything to help and ultimately save her daughter.  But the reality is much more complex.  Mitchell’s portrayal toughens as the movie progresses, but her focus is always clear.  (Keep an eye on her dress, by the way.  Seriously.)  She never feels like a cardboard cutout or a Mary Sue; she’s always exactly on target. 

The same goes for Jodelle Ferland, who with this role can now take her place as having played one of the creepiest child characters in horror movie history; top ten for certain.  Sometimes, you won’t believe she’s a kid, and when that happens, it is very damn scary.

Finishing off the top billing is Sean Bean, whose role was actually penciled in late in the game when the studio realized that all of the other major players were female, and whose role many have further called superfluous.  This I find unfair, for while his role does not follow the main line of the film, it does run parallel, and that is a parallel which he realistically has to maintain all by himself, even when there are others interacting with him on the screen.  Bean’s talents are not wasted here; he’s always a pleasure to watch, and he does far more work here than many will give him credit for.

The show stealer, though, is Alice Krige, who will give you the creeps just by speaking.  It’s hard to say more about her without spoiling the story, but you’ll definitely see what I mean when she appears.  Deborah Kara Unger also makes her mark, though you may not recognize her at first.

And about that story…

Many have walked away from Silent Hill without the slightest idea what was going on.  (Usually when this happens, the assumption given is that it must only be understandable to people who’ve played the game.)  This, I cannot fathom.  The plot seems pretty clear as you go, and is crystal by the end, though certainly with room for healthy question, as long as you pay attention and think about it.  I say this as someone who didn’t play the game before watching this movie the first time and who’s never played it afterward, either.  Without a doubt, Silent Hill does not play to what are likely to be anyone’s expectations, and conforms to no one’s idea of a formulaic plan.  But that, to me, is one of the greatest things about it.  This is a movie you have to think about while it’s busy creeping the Hell out of you.  That’s fantastic.

Yes, Silent Hill has style, and that style also contributes to its substance.  But that does not mean that Silent Hill is all style and no substance; quite the opposite, in fact.  Indeed, this is one of the more innovative horror films out there.  Whether or not that brand of innovation turns out to be your cup of tea, don’t mistake that question of taste for poor execution, because on the score of overall execution, Silent Hill is again masterful.  And also regardless of whether or not Silent Hill ends up being your cup of tea, it will stir a real reaction in you, and it will make you think.  A higher compliment for any film is very hard to give.

Bottom line, Silent Hill is one of the creepiest, most haunting horror films to come out in a long time.  You don’t need to have played any of the games to appreciate it; you just need to be a horror fan.  Whether or not you end up liking what the town’s residents have done with the place, you owe it to yourself to pay Silent Hill a visit to find out.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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