Re-Views: 'Silent Hill' (2006)

Whenever you point out that not a single movie based on a video game has ever been good, people will offer, as evidence to the contrary, "Resident Evil" and "Silent Hill."

"Those were OK!" they'll say. "They were pretty decent in a not-too-bad, low-expectations kind of way, all things considered, in comparison to the rest of the genre!" (I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist of it.)

Well, I've seen "Resident Evil" a second time and stand by my assessment that it's putrid and stupid. (The ensuing sequels haven't done much to improve my memory of it.) "Silent Hill," though -- that one has been vigorously and intelligently defended as standing apart from the rest of the video-game-movie trash heap, the way people point to "The Matrix" as the one good Keanu Reeves performance or "Bad Boys" as Michael Bay's least-bad movie.

I thought there might be something to this. I didn't hate "Silent Hill" when I reviewed it in April 2006, though it's fair to say I strongly disliked it. Perhaps seeing it with new eyes, 6 1/2 years later, would change my opinion.

What I said then: "Why in the name of Sony Playstation is 'Silent Hill' 127 minutes long?... Cracking the two-hour mark does not endear you to anyone, especially if you’re going to fill those two hours with nothing but repetition and chaos. 'Silent Hill' has a pedigree better than most game adaptations, and ... it starts off with an air of respectability, even legitimacy.... You could remove every one of [Sean Bean's] scenes without losing any of the story, while cutting probably 10 minutes off the running time.... [The concept] is eventually explained -- that is to say, someone tells the whole story. It doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t justify all the random eeriness that has preceded it, nor does it excuse what comes after.... [Director Christophe] Gans can evoke atmosphere like nobody’s business.... I would admire it a lot more, however, if it amounted to something scary, creepy or original." Grade: C- [Here's the whole review.]

One correction right off the bat: I described the movie as "cheap." Whether I meant it was inexpensive to make or that it looked cheap, I don't remember. But the thing cost $50 million, which ain't chicken feed (chicken feed can be had for less than a million), and whatever its budget, it certainly doesn't look shoddy. Let's give me the benefit of the doubt and assume I mean "cheap" in the sense of being useless and disposable.

The re-viewing: "Silent Hill" wasn't done any favors by coming out during a tremendous glut of awful video game movies. I'd seen "Alone in the Dark," "Doom," and "BloodRayne" in the previous 15 months alone, each one a special kind of atrocity occupying a dark place in my soul. So while I tried to be as open-minded as possible going into "Silent Hill" back in 2006, there was probably some lingering sense of despair.

Now that the trend has waned and the taste of those many failures has been washed from my mouth, "Silent Hill" goes down a lot more smoothly. Almost every critic, including those who didn't like the film, praised the visuals, and I was caught up even more this time by the apocalyptic hellscapes and the quiet, relentless shower of ash and soot falling like snow on the deserted town. There's no logic to why Rose is harassed by faceless zombie nurses in one scene, a triangle-headed monster in another, li'l mutants in another -- but this randomness adds to the sense, established by the visuals, that we're watching an eerie nightmare.

I must insist on some internal logic where plot is concerned, though. When Rose finds part of a hotel key in a corpse's mouth and concludes that her daughter must be at that hotel: no. Too much of a leap. She needs more to go on than that. Nor is there any good reason at the hospital for Cybil the cop to surrender to the cultists rather than jump in the elevator with Rose and escape.

The problem with trying to get by on atmosphere alone is that even very effective atmosphere eventually feels familiar. "Silent Hill" does finally get around to explaining its story, but not before we've seen way too much footage of Rose and Cybil stumbling through town being menaced by various things. And the explanation, when it comes, is nearly as murky and unsatisfying on second viewing as it was the first time.

What does help "Silent Hill" stand apart from most of its fellow game-based movies is that it doesn't reek as strongly of opportunism. You can tell immediately that the only reason something like "Doom" got produced was that the game was popular and there was money to be made. But "Silent Hill," though it may not be very good at what it does, at least does something. It feels ambitious, driven by creativity rather than marketing. (The exception there is the studio-mandated Sean Bean subplot, which the director opposed.) I still don't like it very much, but I can respect it as an attempt, albeit a ham-fisted one, at converting a game into a horror film.

Do I still strongly dislike this movie? Nope. Once you get over the natural inclination to be wary of movies based on consumer products, and once you're past the 20 minutes of the movie where it's just Radha Mitchell shouting "Sharon!" over and over and over again, "Silent Hill" becomes watchable, sometimes engrossing. I didn't find the gore off-putting this time, perhaps because I knew it was coming. (It sort of sneaks up on you otherwise, feeling gratuitous.) With a tighter runtime and clearer storytelling, this could have been something special. As it stands, it's good enough -- sure, I'll say it, probably the best of the video game adaptations so far. Although that's still not saying much. Grade: C+