2006Director: Cristophe Gans
Cast: Radha Mitchell, Sean Bean, Deborah Kara Unger
first read about the strange, sad, spooky town of Centralia in Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. Wandering off into Pennsylvania coal mining country during his progress up the Appalachian Trail, Bryson comes upon a blasted out burg that looms up out of the countryside like a little corner of Hell relocated to Earth. Sulfurous gases suffuse the town in an eerie fog, leaking out of the innumerable sinkholes and fissures which have rent roads asunder, and swallowed up unsuspecting interlopers and abandoned buildings indiscriminately. Declamatory and vaguely hysterical signs everywhere warn of imminent peril and likely death for all who proceed; an unnerving anticipatory silence hangs like a pall, an anxious stillness which portends something rather dire could happen at any second; and that whatever horror does present itself, it will most likely be unlike anything you could possibly ever imagine.
The causes of Centralia's metamorphosis into a modern day ghost town are far from fantastic. In 1962, a trash fire carelessly lit in an abandoned mine shaft ignited an exposed vein of coal, which proceeded to burn unabated for years, beginning a slow, relentless march underground, spreading radially outwards, until, basically, the entire down was burning up from below. Various unsuccessful attempts were made to at least halt the fire's progress, if not extinguish it, all of which met with failure. Scientists prognosticate that the fire could very well continue to burn for at least a hundred years (!!!). During the 1980s, the town was quarantined and evacuated (well, duh), but here's the thing: even today, forty years after the fire started, and twenty after the town began to rapidly disintegrate, a handful of (fool)hardy souls still live there, refusing to leave.
This is perhaps even more startling and terrifying than the ghastly visage the town presents. And here's the space for the fantastic to enter: perhaps they've been driven mad by the toxic fumes; perhaps they feel like they are atoning for some past sins; or perhaps they are trying to hold off whatever it is that seems to be trying to get out from underneath Centralia. Because whatever is down there, whatever has wrought this destruction, can't be just a simple coal fire, can it? Surely, there is something evil trying to free itself, something demoniac crawling up from the depths and using Centralia as its portal…
I preface my review with this short history of Centralia, PA (for an excellent detailed account, I highly recommend the February 2004 issue of Harper's) because it's likely the most (and probably only) interesting thing you're likely to read in connection with Silent Hill. Indeed, this ruin of a town seems such a rich and obvious source of inspiration for a modern cautionary horror tale that it's quite startling that it hadn't been (ahem) mined already. And its fog-enshrouded desolation dovetails rather neatly with the similarly foggy, desolate atmospheric visuals of the film's other main source, the game series Silent Hill, a promising confluence that seemed, along with the inspired left-field directorial choice of Christophe Gans (whose prior film was the delirious everything-and-the-kitchen-sink monster mash-up Brotherhood of the Wolf), to augur well for a project struggling to break out of its maligned mini-genre.
Of all the game series to come down the adaptation pike, Silent Hill was the most promising. The games have been justly lauded for their Lynchian convoluted plots, genuinely creepy settings and visuals, and strong noirsh characters. With Gans (an avid game fan himself) as director, a script from semi-legit Roger Avery, and a strong cast, this seemed primed to be the first adaptation with a chance of anything approaching artistic credibility. And yet, somewhere along the way, Silent Hill's key virtues were turned against themselves; probably a function of Gans hewing to the video game aesthetic too literally, adapting the film to its language, rather than vice versa.
Though occasionally startlingly sumptuous, the film's visual template is too often impenetrably murky and needlessly cluttered, a headache-inducing riot of Baroque grotesquerie. In terms of narrative, it is an incoherent shambles, so hopelessly convoluted and overwrought that it makes the actual games look a model of clarity. A bare account of its turgid plot—which suffers at once from both willful opacity and overindulgent exposition—would likely require as much time to tell as watching the film itself. This is not a testament to the film's complexity or density, because it has precious little of either. It's merely that so little of what proceeds across the screen evinces any real inner connection or causality—even by the generous standards of horror film internal logic—that only a blow by blow account can bundle it all together.
It all has something to do with a woman named Rose; her lost daughter; a band of witch- burning religious zealots (whose underground bonfires are responsible for the ashen desolation of the town); and a darkness that inexplicably descends on the town on occasion, giving birth to various monstrosities, who pursue our heroine, and then just as inexplicably, vanish as daylight returns. Every so often, the woman's husband can be seen trying to investigate their whereabouts, a pointless subplot that only deadens that film's already interminable run-time, all yielding a hopelessly dull slog that is (worst of all) not the least bit terrifying.
Though an utter failure as a film, Silent Hill is probably the most faithful adaptation of a video game to date (which is not a compliment). Gans the filmmaker yields completely to Gans the game fan. He, at once, seems to venerate and lampoon certain gaming conventions to the point where you hope that it's intentional, even though the self-seriousness of it all indicates that it isn't. If a character needs to somehow get across a yawning chasm, you can bet there'll be a lattice of creaky mismatched steel beams that'll require perfectly timed jumps to cross. Or various integral clues will be discovered only by confronting some particularly gruesome monster. At one point, our heroine is informed of the extreme importance of carefully memorizing the path to a particular room on a map (what, she can't hit up gamefaqs.com in a pinch?). A full half of the film's duration is spent watching our heroine dash about abandoned streets and down darkened corridors, pursuing or being pursued (sounds about right, if my memories of Silent Hill 2 serve me well). If it weren't so straight-faced an adaptation, Silent Hill might have worked brilliantly as a parody of the very games to which it’s supposedly paying tribute. Instead, we plunk down 10 bucks, two hours, and we don't even get to hold the controller.
By: Jake Meaney
Published on: 2006-04-28