From director Christophe Gans comes yet another title in the line of game-to-movie transfers, this time working from the highly acclaimed Japanese psychological horror series, Silent Hill. With the appalling likes of Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and Resident Evil still haunting us as previous attempts to bring games to the big screen, could Silent Hill be the one to redeem this unlikely cinematic genre? Can the series´ unparalleled disturbing drama, its dense, oppressive atmosphere and gruelling pace truly be captured in a film? The answer is: not quite, but this is nevertheless a good attempt.
Silent Hill immediately has more going for it as a candidate for filmic representation, since unlike the games chosen in the past the series already has a very strong storyline, its own mythology and a formidable cast of well-developed characters. The series centres around the old town of Silent Hill, a place of deliberately ambiguous corporeality, where in each of the games various characters are, for one reason or another, lured to witness the darkness born from the town´s past and the terror of their own personal hell. Pioneering a new genre of horror for computer games, the focus lay on telling deeply sorrowful stories that were twisted and intensified by leading the protagonist through sickening environments, depicting graphically the decay of both the town and their mind and body, rank with misery and the threat of cruelty, violence and murder. Not depending on explicit gore, the series´ success came from this strength of atmosphere, the range of emotions explored through such a dismal setting and characters worthy of hate, repulsion, but also profound pity.
The film is a reworking of the story from the first game in the series, and tells of a young girl, Sharon, and her mother, Rose, who are drawn to Silent Hill after the girl suffers visions and nightmares about the town. Closed off years before due to a reported blazing mine fire that still burns today, the two find their way there but also attract the attention of a patrolling cop Cybil Bennett from the neighbouring town. Shortly after entering Silent Hill, Rose crashes her car trying to avoid the figure of a girl crossing the road, and blacks out. When she wakes up, her daughter is gone, the desolate town is engulfed in dense fog, ash falls from the sky like snow, and all the exits are cut off by sheer, unnatural abysses in the land surrounding the town. Determined to recover her daughter, she plunges into the heart of Silent Hill, where before long a chilling siren heralds the fall of a hellish night and she is beset by a variety of hideous, demented creatures that somehow resemble the prior townsfolk. The buildings distort and corrode rapidly before her eyes into an otherworldly, evil, wire-frame version of Silent Hill. What´s more, she is seemingly led from place to place by her running daughter, or a girl who looks remarkably like her. Eventually joined by Cybil, who has been caught in the same nightmare, Rose braves her way onward to the truth about Silent Hill and her daughter, to discover that this is no dream, no outbreak of a mutating virus, but the effects of a tortured and vengeful imagination come to life. Sean Bean also stars as Rose´s husband, desperately trying to pursue her but having his own problems with the authorities who wish to keep Silent Hill and its history quiet.
The visual effects are not only excellent, but also authentic to the game series. The eerie lighting of the misty "daytime" Silent Hill and the bleak tones of the bloody, rust-ridden "hell" version are spot on, as are the various creatures that have been imported from the first three games. The latter includes the terrifying hulk "Pyramid Head", a masterstroke character from Silent Hill 2 here reduced to a less significant role but maintaining his full stature of fear, a ghastly butcher dragging an immense knife along the floor behind him. The film also generally takes a more blatant approach to gore, going far beyond suggestion and undertone into some all-out disgusting scenes, but it doesn´t go too far and still seems to work. Nods to the game go so far as to recreate the exact camera angles used for certain scenes, adding skewed, disorientating points of view that always worked very well.
The brilliant music from the first three games is also employed throughout, the claustrophobic ambiences and creepy piano melodies creating some unique feels and again contributing to the film´s authenticity as part of the series. The pieces of music lifted have not been included randomly, and fit very well in their new contexts as well as harking back to moments from the games.
The most obvious shortcoming of the film is that everything happens too fast. In game form, the time spent trapped in each place to absorb its details was crucial, whereas in the film the various settings and their meaning didn´t really have enough time to brew. The characters, too, fail to appear very vivid as a result, often being introduced quickly and given a less than satisfying backstory, as in the case of Alice Krige´s cult leader character. Also, in some ways, the accurate music and visuals previously mentioned could be playing off the viewer´s knowledge of the games to the extent where this will only highlight that the film´s storyline is in itself not as strong as it could have been. Behind the intriguing backdrop of well-executed visuals, the motivations and forces at work in Silent Hill are not very convincing. Character roles from the original story have been changed dramatically, and while there are now more gruesome scenes, some of the more heavily twisted and distasteful plot points that made the game script so challenging and effective are now gone. The character of Dahlia Gillespie, for instance, is no longer the infanticidal zealot, masterminding the town´s condition for her own ends, but rather a poor victim of persecution by a rather one-dimensional religious cult.
The result is a film that borrows several elements of Silent Hill but is delivered in such a way that it ultimately seems a little contrived and needlessly extreme. The storyline is close enough to the first instalment of the game that the large changes made will annoy and disappoint fans, and at the end of the day nothing is really added to the series. Nevertheless, there are some genuinely scary moments, and in terms of atmosphere the film does a remarkable job of faithfully recreating what the games achieved. For this alone, while not a good film per se, Silent Hill is arguably the best film to have been born from a game series.