If you were to try and dream up a canon of great videogame films, you can be certain about two things. One, that it would be small. And two, that the 2006 adaptation of erstwhile horror game Silent Hill would be in it.
In a landscape of dodgy adaptations and unfaithful abominations, Silent Hill stands out because it treats its source series with respect. Director Christophe Gans was a self-confessed fan of Konami’s horror franchise, and chased the licence himself, convincing the developers to let him helm the project by proving his familiarity with the games. The French director had already made a name for himself as a stylish filmmaker, and had caught the film world’s attention with the lavish historical epic Brotherhood Of The Wolf back in 2001.
That film was such a success that it broke out of the ‘international cinema’ ghetto and still stands as the second highest-grossing French film to date in the famously subtitle-averse United States. Even after getting his hands on the licence, Gans always made sure that there was a PlayStation nearby so he could school both cast and crew on the source material.
Pulp Fiction co-writer (and fellow gamer) Roger Avary was brought in to pen the screenplay, which was loosely based on the first entry in the series, but with one major change. The game told the story of a father looking for his lost daughter in the ghost town of Silent Hill, passing from the real world into a twisted, nightmarish alternate dimension to find her. For the film, the parent’s gender was switched, and Radha Mitchell was cast in the lead role as Rose Da Silva, a mother who is determined to find out why this mysterious town has such a hold over her adopted daughter, Sharon. Against the wishes of her husband, Christopher (Sean Bean), she sets off to Silent Hill to discover for herself, and unwittingly finds herself stuck in the spooky town, and enveloped by the dark curse that hangs over it.
Whereas the likes of Max Payne, Hitman, Tomb Raider and Prince Of Persia were fed through the studio meat grinder, and came out the other end as rather conventional Hollywood genre flicks, Silent Hill closely mimicked the survival horror vibe of the games themselves, effectively recreating the creepiness, the isolation, and the thick fog that originally set players on edge. Such qualities set the film apart, since the focus was on tone and atmosphere, and emulating the experience of playing the game itself, as opposed to merely mining the game for settings and set-pieces.
Genre really is the key term here, as Silent Hill’s roots in surreal and psychological horror provided Gans and Avary with a launchpad for a very different kind of videogame movie, one that combined a Stephen King-influenced set-up of normal people finding horror in the heart of America with the slowly unfurling, eerie elegance of contemporary Asian horror classics like Ring or A Tale Of Two Sisters. For the town itself, Avary embellished the source material by ripping details right out of the real world, basing Silent Hill on abandoned mining towns that were evacuated after coal fires erupted underneath.
Gans, meanwhile, focused on specific aspects of the game world, from radio static to gently falling, ashen snow, crafting an opening hour that progresses at its own pace while cranking up the tension. For long stretches of Rose’s early traipsing through the empty town, there’s little dialogue at all, just silence and the threat of something gruesome around the corner. And when that threat reveals itself, it is far from familiar.
Soon, the audience grows wary of the sound of a distant air raid siren, which signals the shift between the melancholy isolation of the deserted town, and a horrific Otherworld filled with monstrous creatures and abject terror. Each new monster – be it the spasmodic nurses, or the knife-wielding Pyramid Head – may be pilfered from the games, but they appear out of Silent Hill’s dense darkness like figures in a dream, twisted characters with one clear motive: to ruin Rose’s day.
Working with cinematographer Dan Laustsen and production designer Carol Spier, Gans cooks up some terrifying visuals throughout. The fog-shrouded, dilapidated town is sinister enough, but the sequences that herald the shift from murkiness to darkness, when the very fabric of reality disintegrates to reveal the rusty, hellish Otherworld underneath, are something to behold. This unpredictable, menacing flow of powerful images plays like a nightmare, and at times Gans seems more intent on creating a sort of tone poem than he is telling a story. The extended, surreal sequences have more than a little in common with the darker work of David Lynch, especially the more disconcerting moments of Inland Empire, which was released later in the same year.
While he sought to emulate certain shots, camera angles, and the look of the Silent Hill games, Gans knew there was one integral component that couldn’t be replicated: the series’ chilling soundtrack. His solution was simple and inspired, as he approached composer Akira Yamaoka directly, and basically performed a cut-and-paste job on some of the franchise’s best musical moments. Yamaoka’s eclectic scores ranged from mournful piano melodies to frightening industrial noise, and could shift from beauty to terror at any moment. For a film that sought to punctuate long stretches of tension with horrific flourishes, it was a perfect fit.
Indeed, the kinship between the film and the original game is astounding, and its rare for any adaptation – videogame or otherwise – to be so successfully similar to its source without tripping over its own sense of reverence. Unfortunately, for all its stylistic and atmospheric triumphs, Silent Hill’s faithfulness is also the main cause of its downfall.
After replicating the vulnerable, edge-of-your-seat experience of playing a survival horror game in Rose’s exploration of the town, as she faces the darkness with nothing but a flickering flashlight, the film then systematically undoes almost all of its hard work, focusing on overly expository dialogue that recalls the worst tendencies of videogame cut-scenes. Once we are introduced to the town’s resident cult, and are told in a lengthy flashback of their hounding and ritual burning of a supposed child-witch, the film ventures into telling – as opposed to showing – us all about Silent Hill, explaining all of the creepiness and mystery of the town, its multiple dimensions and horrific inhabitants in gory, confusing detail.
All along, the film had been more interested in mood and visuals than either character or plot, but this conclusion, in all its hastiness, casts the film in a more corny, B-Movie mould, full of cult leaders quoting verses from the Bible, while their zealous followers shriek “burn the witch!” All of a sudden, this eerie American-Gothic-meets-Asian-horror mash-up goes a little bit Wicker Man, and it doesn’t sit well at all.
The ambiguous ending, which suggests that Rose and Sharon are still stuck in Silent Hill’s world, hinted that there was still more story to tell, but the proposed sequel was subject to various delays. Gans moved on to other projects, while Avary’s career was put on hold after he was convicted with involuntary manslaughter after a drink driving incident. For years, the project was shelved.
Now, over six years after Silent Hill was released to modest box office success (just under $100 million worldwide on a $50 million budget) and some heavily qualified, but overwhelmingly negative reviews (Roger Ebert claimed it was “an incredibly good looking film”, but confessed he didn’t understand the story at all), we’re about to be treated to Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, a new horror flick based mostly on the third game in the series, directed by Michael J Bassett (Solomon Kane).
In the film world, sequels rarely outclass their predecessors, but if games have taught us anything, it’s that follow-ups can build on past successes. Either way, Revelation has a lot to live up to.
Silent Hill: Revelation 3D is out in the UK on the 31st October.
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