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In Defense Of: “Silent Hill” (2006)

Whether you’re an avid cinephile or a hardcore gamer, it’s safe to say that the adaptation of video games to movies has been a somewhat tumultuous affair (that’s probably putting it lightly). Though modern game narratives have seen a huge uptick in both quality and quantity, translating the interactive medium to the big screen has been upsettingly more miss, than hit.

Still, there have been a few attempts that have bravely run the gauntlet and grossed respectable box office earnings, without invoking the wrath of the diehard fanbase the source material is based upon. Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill is one such movie. And you know what? It’s actually one of the best, and one of the most accurate, video game to movie adaptations yet.

Granted, those may not be the highest bars out there — for the time being, anyway — but nevertheless, there’s a surprising amount of enjoyment that can be gleaned from the French filmmaker’s 2006 adaptation, particularly if you’ve played the heck out of Konami’s venerable horror game franchise, like yours truly.

Yep, this is coming from a big fan of the game series, someone who holds many of those horror classics near and dear to their pitch-black heart (Silent Hill 2 is legitimately one of my favourite games of all-time). Though I went into the movie skeptical, I actually found the first film to be a respectful and respectable cinematic conversion of the source material, which captures a lot of the essence of the games surprisingly well. The less said about Michael J. Basset’s awful sequel the better — but I digress — we’re here to focus on the first flick, which is very much a decent haunted town horror mystery that not only feels authentic, but also looks the part and sounds the part, too.

So, to get everyone up to speed, let’s firstly catch up on Silent Hill’s story, which is arguably one of its weakest aspects. Essentially a hodgepodge amalgamation of the first three games, the plot focuses upon Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell) and her husband Christopher (Sean Bean), whose adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) is haunted by night terrors which centre around the titular lakeside town. Sleepwalking into dangerously precarious situations and screaming “Silent Hill!” repeatedly urges Rose to take action and, against her husband’s wishes, Rose decides to take Sharon to the infamous foggy town in a bid to cure her ongoing nightmares and find answers as to why her daughter is subconsciously so unhealthily obsessed with this town shrouded in mystery.

The good thing is that the first half of Silent Hill’s story is fairly well done. It’s at its best when Christophe Gans keeps his spooky cards close to his chest as he revels in the mythos’ narrative ambiguity and just the plain weirdness of it all. Unfortunately, the movie’s dialogue and characterization is a little uneven, particularly in the latter half, but it’s the actual town that’s one of the strongest “characters” here. I’m pretty sure the French director had a genuine understanding of this, as he spends much of the camera’s gaze on the titular town’s destitute streets, burnt out husk-like factories and derelict buildings, with some terrific cinematography that looks fantastically eerie and tonally on-point. Kudos.

Though the rest of the cast are limited to borderline caricature-level character development, the foggy, creepy town is there to pick up the slack. And despite the lack of characterization and the uneven script, all the actors put in a decent performance, particularly the desperate and forlorn parents Radha Mitchell and Sean Bean.

So, what derails Silent Hill’s story? Well, the movie is unfortunately marred by some unwieldy exposition dumps that occur in the latter half. It’s when the film shows its hand and attempts to fill in the gaps with unnecessarily lengthy backstory that it loses much of the momentum that it had built up in the opening half. It feels muddled and almost deliberately confusing, which is never a good thing. Perhaps, a big part of of what makes Silent Hill work so well is in not knowing all of the narrative details.

When the unknown is demystified by these lengthy exposition dumps, some of my investment in the film evaporates with it. It’s like a magician showing you the ins and outs of how their best magic trick works, and it sadly takes much of the wind out of the movie’s sails, which is a shame.

Now, I don’t want to sound too glass-half-empty, as on the whole, I think Silent Hill is a worthy stab at taking some of the finest horror games ever made and translating them to the big screen. The fan-service is spot on and if you’ve played the games, I’m sure you’ll find a ton of nods to the original “Team Silent” developed titles.

From the haunting air-raid siren when the otherworld begins to loom (I legit had goosebumps when I first heard it), to the inclusion of some of the iconic monsters from the games (Pyramid Head kind’ve works as a judge, jury, executioner-style antagonist in the context of this movie), to the smaller touches like the crackling radio, the map reading sections and the culmination of a boss-style encounter in the basement of a decrepit hotel. All of these thoughtful motifs combine to really make my inner Silent Hill fan one happy Robbie the bunny. And that’s what’s truly surprising about the film; it often feels like it was made by a team who were genuine fans of the source material. And it shows.

Silent Hill is almost a great horror movie. It teeters on the edge of greatness for its first half, but falls into some narrative pitfalls in the final act. Though it won’t go down in history as a horror masterpiece, it’s a valiant effort at bridging the gap between video games and cinema, with an end result that is definitely worth a watch, particularly for all you gore-hounds out there.

The film’s eerie atmosphere, sharp-eyed cinematography and strong performances, along with Akira Yamaoka’s incredible soundtrack all coalesce wonderfully on the big screen. And I’m happy to finally say it out loud: Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill is one of the best video game to movie adaptations yet. Sure, that may not be the most prestigious accolade out there, but it’s a damn good start. Now, if only we could get a decent Resident Evil movie…

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