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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Silent Hill

For a town called Silent Hill, it sure is a noisy place. In case you’ve never heard of it, Silent Hill is the name of the town and the name of the latest horror film just opened at the Essex Cinemas this past week, and it is definitely different than most. Yes, I rolled my eyes at the idea of seeing another movie based on a video game. Sometimes they work, like with Resident Evil, but more often than not they don’t, as was the case with Doom. And we just saw Stay Alive a short month ago, about people in this world being affected by things from inside a video game getting out. I blame this whole thing on Tron, which opened the video game/movie connection almost twenty five years ago. Damn you, Tron! Damn you! But I digress as usual.

If Silent Hill has a decidedly different look than most American horror films it can be credited to Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf), a French writer/director who has only made five movies since 1981, showing either a studied focus on each project or a profound laziness towards his craft. I’d prefer to think the former as Silent Hill, while difficult at times to follow, is a beautiful film to watch, even at its’ most disgusting moments. There is a real artistry to the cinematography that captures both the bright and autumnal yellows and reds of the countryside in our “normal” world with the stark grays and whites that blanket the landscape of nearby Silent Hill which makes this somehow seem like there is more here than a simple ghost story.

As for the story itself… well, that is a bit problematic, and that’s where Gans and co-writer Nicolas Boukhrief seem to have lost me. Okay, it seems to make sense at first. Rose (Radha Mitchell, Finding Neverland; Phone Booth) and Christopher DaSilva (Sean Bean, Flightplan; The Lord of the Rings trilogy) are the parents of a nine year old girl, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), who sleepwalks and has night terrors that revolve around a town called…hmmmm…. oh, you know. For no apparent reason except to move the story along without any exposition, Rose decides to bundle the kid up and take her to the real Silent Hill, an abandoned ghost town in Virginia where an underground coal fire has burned unabated for more than thirty years, making the place uninhabitable. Naturally, she does this without telling her husband and simply leaves him a voice mail telling him that she had to do it and will be in touch. Now this sounds like a great marriage, but who am I to judge, another dead Ann Landers? Not me.

Before you know it Rose has a local cop in hot pursuit trying to stop her from taking the closed road
to Silent Hill and she spins out, knocking herself unconscious in the process. When she awakens hours later she finds she is not in Kansas anymore, but there aren't any cute little munchkins around either. Even Sharon is gone. Now it is “snowing” ash and she is at the town line to Silent Hill ~ alone. Panicked, she runs into the town, screaming wildly for her daughter, who appears to be playing with her, just turning corners and running into buildings every time Rose catches a glimpse of her from afar. Still Rose remains a dedicated mother. Not once does she scream “You are going to get such a time out, Young Lady!” or “Wait until I get a hold of you!” like most frustrated mothers would do at this point. No, instead, she descends into the darkness of a dank basement and begins weaving through a maze of chain link fencing in response to “Sharon’s” whispers of “Mommy”. Not once does it seem to occur to Rose that she may be getting herself into a thorny situation down here in the murky bowels of the town.

Naturally, things don’t go well, and let’s just say that any sane person surviving what Rose sees and experiences would fly faster than lightening out of town and straight to the nearest psychiatric hospital for admission, but our Rose is special. Instead, she perseveres, and the salute to gross special effects continues unabated for the next hour without any rhyme nor reason other than to challenge all of us who watch “The View” regularly to see something more terrifying than Star Jones in a bikini eating a whole barbequed chicken.

Meanwhile Christopher is mustering the passion of a sleepy clam as he struggles to act interested in the movie at all. Perhaps Sean Bean is wondering how he went from Lord of the Rings to this, but whatever is going through his mind he manages to find the strength to follow Rose and drives from Ohio to Virginia in what appears to be minutes, though one can hardly understand why. Even when he clashes with another local cop (Hostage’s Kim Coates) he seems barely annoyed yet ends up going with Officer Gucci into the town itself.

Here is where things go completely haywire. While Rose, now accompanied by Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden, Fantastic Four; Bailey’s Billion$), the police officer who chased her into Silent Hill, meets and does battle with a creepy cult of religious fanatics led by Tom Cruise… no, I’m kidding, he was too busy decrying pharmaceuticals and proclaiming his heterosexuality while they were filming, so they went for the cheap instead and this cult is led by Christabella, played by Alice Krige, who is best remembered as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. Ms. Krige could scare the corn off a cob just by staring at it, so she is not someone you, Rose, or anyone would want to meet in a dark alley or a spooked-out place like Silent Hill. So while blood and guts fly in Rose’s ashen Silent Hill, Christopher and Gucci are walking the streets of a Technicolor version of the same, where the sun shines and the streets are vacant of both people and ashes. Does this make sense? Of course not, but then it makes about as much sense as the rest of this convoluted story that has more holes than a cheese from Switzerland.

I wish I could tell you that everything turns out alright in the end, but I’m not sure even sure the movie actually ended so much as gave up from exhaustion. Either that or Jodelle Ferland just grew so old while Gans was filming that it became impossible to film an ending with her as a believable 9 year old any more. Somewhere along the way it seems Sharon and her importance to the story got as lost as an explanation for Rose’s dumb parenting at the beginning of the story. Still, Silent Hill is not without its’ merits. It is a pretty canvas of pictures, even the goriest of them. There are some clever camera and special effects work that look realistic even though they never could be, and Ganz uses images, sounds and color in ways that aren’t standard Hollywood operating procedure.

If you are looking to be confounded, confused, creeped out and captivated all at once, tiptoe down to the Essex Cinemas and visit Silent Hill.

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