Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Silent Hill

(2006) ****

Rose's adopted daughter Sharon is a problem sleepwalker (skirting cliffs and such) and suffers nightmares in which she calls out the name Silent Hill. So Rose takes her to the real Silent Hill, a West Virginia ghost town deserted for thirty years after a still-burning coal mine fire poisoned the air. Chased by a suspicious biker cop down a dark highway, Rose avoids a little girl in the road and wipes out. When she wakes up, she's in a grey twilight world, with a constant rain of ash, and her daughter is nowhere to be seen.

This movie is a masterpiece of mood and setting. The main character, really, is Silent Hill itself, and its nightmarish details are laid out with exquisite attention. Rose and Cybil, the cop, find themselves trapped in the ash world, and together they seek out Sharon and the truth. The landscape is stylishly decayed, but not the same squalor I've been describing in other movies; this is like squalor without the moisture, its own unique thing. Periodically the ash world is overcome by a darker evil, heralded by the judgement-horn tones of the air raid sirens. When that happens the dried paint and ash peel upwards, the hellish landscape worsening with a sharper coating of rust. When the Darkness comes, the truly lethal monsters stalk Silent Hill.

It's a wonderful realization of this scary, fictional world, and the feeling of being somewhere entirely else is complete. It's a creative hell, not quite riding the Christian framework, which reminded me of comic book writer Grant Morrison's vision of a closer-to-home, modern theology. And I'm a sucker for the move where a signal goes off and suddenly the whole world transforms into something worse. The only other example I can think of is the Tales from the Dark Side episode called The Last Car, depicting a train car you can never leave in which spectral things happen when traversing tunnels.

This is a notable high mark for movies based on video games, and a high point in the quest for scary CG monsters. The creatures of Silent Hill are mostly actors with computer assistance, but it's really the first time I've seen anything with an obvious CG styling that I'd call scary at all.

However, the two big problems I had with this when I first saw it still bug me. Up until 90 minutes in you're looking at a perfect five-star movie, with these compelling characters navigating this amazing, horrible place. Then comes the reveal, the video-game moment when you find out just what the hick is going on, and it leaves a couple of questions in its place. It's nitpicky, but the relationship between the worldly events and the supernatural ones is a little too murky for my taste. This probably wouldn't even rate as an issue if it weren't for big problem number two: I hate the denoument of this story. The climax unfolds just fine, but three feet from the exit door the plot goes inexplicably sideways. I'm not the kind of guy who needs happy endings or anything; well-wrought dark endings are the truly bold tales in this genre. But there's no reason for this big chunk of disappointment; it's just dropped anonymously in your lap. I'm also open to story elements that leave some of the interpretation to us, but there's a point where it's clever and there's a point where it's sloppy. Silent Hill gets a star knocked off for that sloppy.

Still, this comes highly recommended. It's a beautiful nightmare.


JPX said...

"And I'm a sucker for the move where a signal goes off and suddenly the whole world transforms into something worse."

I think Hellbound: Hellraiser II has a similar conceit. There's that giant floating version of the box that transforms periodically and causes worse things to happen.

My main problem with Silent Hill is that you never really know if the main character is alive or dead and, as you note, the film just goes crazy during the climax.

What, no picture of pyramid head?

Octopunk said...

I thought the crazy climax was okay, if a little inundated with CG barbed wire. It's the "alive or dead" thing that honks me off.

Maybe I'll go find a Pyramid Head pic. There's so many great visuals in this movie, I didn't want to go too crazy pulling screenshots. I was behind on my reviews all weekend. All caught up!

That Hellraiser II thing is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. In fact, I'm a little annoyed that I didn't think of it.

Jordan said...

You might want to take a look at the special features beore you return the disc. The technical details of how they did Nurses, Pyramidhead, "Walking blood turnip" (or whatever that thing was; you know: "SHOOT IT! SHOOT IT!") are very interesting.

Jordan said...

My comments to octo (if anyone is interested):

You know how I'm always pointing out that Heavy Metal stories (like Fistful, Den) take place in a fictional universe that seems to be governed by the principles of sexual fantasy? (Not just "written to be a sexual fantasy" but "set in a fantastical locale with its own rules of physics that happen to correspond to the readers' sexual fantasies.")

Well, Silent Hill is a place whose rules seem to derive directly from fear. Why does all the light go away when the bad stuff happens? Because that's the scariest thing that could happen. Why does the town play a Tex Avery bait-and-switch wherein the sound of your own missing daughter crying leads you into a slaughterhouse? Because it's so damn scary. Why, when you meet an old hag and tell her that you're trying to find your daughter, does she inform you that "We have all lost our children"? Because that's just about the worst answer you could receive. Why does the "double dare you" guy come to life? Because of course he does; it's the only way the situation could get worse.

Ditto the "cliffs of Mordor" surrounding the town; the fact that the ghost children seem to WANT something from the humans, like they're desperate or something; a guy with a knife the size of a couch; a plummeting elevator; etc.

Separate point: you know what I mean about how good those ersatz helicopter shots in the beginning are? Particularly when she's driving fast and we cut to the moonlit flying view, which is so peaceful and quiet. It's just the wrong road....the really wrong road.


Somehow the two bridges help make it even weirder and scarier. The cut from the gas station to the first overhead, when the music comes in, always gives me goose bumps. (So French!) It's very much like the (brilliant) first half hour of Psycho, in that the question of "where she's going" is psychological and criminal as well as geographical; the director knows this (just like Hitchcock did) and therefore can achieve that weird vibe wherein the doorway to horror is like some kind of contemplative mood swing or "itch you need to scratch" or deep urge coming to the surface, inescapably. The poetry of getting the character into the bad place can get poetic indeed.