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May 15, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 15, 2006 |

Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill is like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” on acid. The viewer is thrown into the story with relatively little explanation and confronted by a dimension of perilous horror, left to watch the protagonists sort through it piece by piece. Through this approach, Gans has made one of the first game/movie crossovers to successfully replicate the experience that makes that particular series so impressive.

I’ll admit to having little firsthand familiarity with any of the four video games of the “Silent Hill” series, but I’ve seen a lot of imagery from them, and it feels like Gans has gone the extra mile in reproducing the look and feel — even going so far so as to mime the exact camera movements, music and creatures found in the games, achieving a truly surreal effect on celluloid.

We begin with Rose De Silva (Radha Mitchell) whose adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) sleepwalks and has disturbing regressions, uttering cryptic phrases about a place called “Silent Hill” — which turns out to be a West Virginia mining town that Sharon’s mother lived in. Rose decides abruptly (and against hubby Sean Bean’s wishes) to take Sharon there to see if it brings any of these seemingly repressed memories to the surface. No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the buildup instills a sense of uncertainty and dread that explodes midway through the movie.

Finding that the town has been blocked off because of “coal fires that never went out,” Rose speeds through some gates and into the outskirts of the town, tailed by a cop (Laurie Holden). When a phantom runs across the road, Rose crashes the car and, upon coming to, finds that Sharon is missing.

The town of Silent Hill is almost completely abandoned, covered in a dense blanket of fog. Ashes rain down from the sky. It doesn’t take much to realize that something is alarmingly wrong. After some cursory exploring, Rose is transported to a dimension of absolute monstrosity: The fabric of reality literally peels away to reveal some kind of hellish factory, shrouded in darkness and populated with indescribable entities that beset her. The first time this happens is genuinely terrifying. It doesn’t do any good to describe visually what abominable things Rose sees, as the viewer will likely be too overcome with fear and revulsion to process them anyway. Suffice it to say: Two parts Lovecraft and one part Japanese-influenced demonology. I don’t think I’ve seen anything so baldly horrifying on film. Be warned.

After this, Rose is basically on a mission for survival while still trying to find her daughter and wade through the mire of insanity that has engulfed the town. She unravels clues to the mystery bit by bit, and with the specter of terror that constantly looms over her and the other inhabitants, the section of the movie in Silent Hill itself is breathlessly engrossing.

The story does a kind of expositional seesaw between this parallel universe and the “real” world, wherein Bean also tracks down the town and does some sleuthing of his own. Bean’s character was a later addition to Roger Avary’s script after it became apparent there were too few men in the movie (who cares?) and his presence feels suitably unnecessary. The intercalary episodes with his character serve a nice purpose in exploring the plot, but otherwise break up the more involving pace of the “other” nightmarish Silent Hill.

The biggest problems with Silent Hill arrive with its climax: Rose solves the mystery, discovering what caused the otherworldly events in the town and why (er, sort of). The explanation is pretty convoluted and will have more than a few theatergoers scratching their heads. I can only infer that much of the story is left to be deduced simply by experiencing it. Either that or I’m just confused because I haven’t played the game. But summarily dismissing the film (as that hack Ebert has deigned to do) because of its fleeting use of logic isn’t really fair. In duplicating the visceral feel of the game, it was necessary to overwhelm our senses by letting much of the cryptic narrative slide by without explanation. Gans has thrown 100 percent of his efforts into the imagery, and it’s that which makes Silent Hill a veritable rollercoaster of experience.

It’s also true, unfortunately, that without a lucid plot the film fails to really make as much of an impact as it should. To be sure, the images of roiling demons, faceless, knife-wielding homunculi and gallons of blood will haunt a viewer’s dreams for many a week to come, but that’s the only impression Silent Hill is likely to leave. Is this a fair trade-off? Absolutely.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

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Film | May 15, 2006 |

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