Saturday, June 14, 2008

Ashes, Fog, and Mother Love: the Boring Gore of Silent Hill (2006)

Late at night, a little girl stands on the edge of a cliff looking down into a glowing pit. Just when she’s about to jump, her mother grabs her, but the child keeps saying “Silent Hill, Silent Hill” in her sleepwalking stupor. Just to make sure we know just how loving this mother/child bond is, the next scene shows the two cuddling under a tree with much sunny backlighting, but the mother Rose (Radha Mitchell) is concerned about her adopted daughter Sharon’s mental health, so for some reason she drives her off to Silent Hill, a spooky mining town in West Virginia that has been closed off due to the fumes of a coal fire that has poisoned the area. Just as she leaves, her husband Christopher (Sean Bean) googles the town on his computer just to find that the place is haunted!

After a steady diet of romantic comedies and comic book movies, I have found I often prefer the survivalist ethos of horror films, but Silent Hill was evilly hatched from a 1999 Sony PlayStation “survival horror” video game, and therein lies the trouble. Upon arrival at Silent Hill, Rose crashes her SUV and passes out. When she comes to, Sharon has disappeared, so Rose spends innumerable hours hunting around the foggy, largely abandoned town that rains ashes. Every now and again, a siren goes off, darkness falls, and creepy things start to happen.

Rose runs into a bunch of deformed radioactive blue children who lurch after her, grabbing at her legs as she tries to escape a maze of metal fences. Later, she encounters a man in the stall of an old school bathroom who has his head tied to his feet with barbed wire. He somehow pursues her by crawling on his stomach and making gurgling noises. As he touches the wall, it turns blood red and the color envelops the room. Another guy with a large knife and a massive metal beak for a head makes him resemble one of the Spy vs. Spy characters of Mad Magazine. He rips the flesh off of a young woman on the steps of a church. You also see huge bugs with human heads, various crucified figures with gas masks, and a nice assortment of dusty abandoned sets that tend to morph when the lights go out.

Beyond its debt to Jacob’s Ladder and The Ring, Silent Hill is largely faithful to the video game, but at least in the game you have to figure out how to get to the next level. Here, Rose always finds her way on her own, and since we know there will be several more levels to get through, things get very dull fast. I was more concerned about one of the squeaky chairs in the theater than the story, because this game world really doesn’t care all that much about characterization or plot, nor is it scary. Just as Jodie Foster struggles in Flight Plan, Radha Mitchell has to surmount various challenges in her endless militant mother-love. Since we know she won’t likely get killed or badly hurt, the moviemakers find reasons to splatter blood on her to convey menace. Very late in the story, it turns out that a rapid cult of witch-burners reminiscent of The Crucible have some dead girl angry with them for burning her alive. Rose’s husband Christopher makes some progress in tracking down his family by breaking into the town’s moldy police records, but mostly the film limps along with atmosphere and the next battalion of deformed twitchy creatures. I have nothing against Radha Mitchell as an actress. She has done good work for Woody Allen recently in Melinda and Melinda. But will she make it through a phalanx of masked jerking nurses brandishing knives? Why does a demon variation on her child keep leading her further into danger? Without a coherent villain or suspense, Silent Hill relies on casual gore to propel itself Inferno-ward. Even the gamers in the audience will lose interest.

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