Let me begin by stating the obvious: "Silent Hill" is not a smart movie. Based on the highly successful video game of the same name, this film makes no sense and offers nothing of significant value to the horror genre. It is a movie that will no doubt be devoured with relish by fans of the eponymous game and ignored by just about everyone else. There is nothing in the way of intellectual inspiration or artistic innovation to be found here, and the film will make nary a stir on the American moviegoing experience.
With that out of the way, it is to my utmost shame to admit that I liked this movie. Having never played the original game, I was nonetheless sucked in by the film's arresting visuals, many of which stayed in my mind long after the final credits rolled. Although the story is horribly convoluted, the characters flat, the running time about half an hour too long, and the conclusion stupefyingly ambiguous, the imagery of "Silent Hill" is just too beautiful and grotesque to completely ignore. At times, Dan Laustsen's cinematography reaches an almost painterly appearance, even when disfigured nasties are not slithering across the screen.
From what I understood, here is the basic crux of the story. When young Sharon Da Silva (Jodelle Ferland) takes to sleepwalking and repeating the mysterious name of a long-deserted town called Silent Hill, her mother, Rose (Radha Mitchell), decides the two of them should pay a visit to this town to get to the bottom of it, in spite of her husband's reservations. Christopher Da Silva (Sean Bean) is convinced that there is something wrong with the whole thing, but Rose leaves anyway, only to crash her car in the ash-covered town and lose Sharon. When a butch, but voluptuous, female cop (Laurie Holden) joins Rose, they discover that Silent Hill may be a portal to hell, or some netherworld where demonic creatures roam once the darkness comes.
During their search for Sharon, Rose and the cop meet the citizens of Silent Hill, all members of a religious cult who still believe in burning witches. The town was destroyed in a fire about 30 years earlier, and the people still appear to be scorching. At roughly the same time each evening, an alarm sounds, calling the people to the church for sanctuary from the monstrous creatures of the night. Where the alarm comes from, who's sounding it, or why the evil forces would allow their presence to be so predictable is never made clear, but that's not really important. What is important is that the spiritual head of these fanatics (Alice Krige) is convinced that Rose is also a witch and that she is luring the dark forces to them.
Freely exhibiting thematic and visual similarities with "Rosemary's Baby," "The Wicker Man" and "Carrie," "Silent Hill" presents a mishmash of ideas that never quite connect. There are elements of conspiracy and secrecy that bring a genuine eeriness to the first half of the movie, but the film turns increasingly ugly until it explodes in a gruesome revenge scene that would put Stephen King to shame. The film's video-game inspiration is betrayed most blatantly by a sequence in which Rose, having just escaped a group of knife-wielding demon-nurses, is congratulated by an unseen character who proceeds to give her a complete backstory of the town and its people. The voice literally tells her, "Your reward is the truth." If that doesn't scream bonus level, then nothing does.
Once again, though, the movie's strongest assets are its visuals. Director Christophe Gans displays an impeccable flair for realizing the otherworldliness of the settings and their inhabitants. The town, which constantly rains ashes, is shrouded in blinding grayness that gives off a quiet, ethereal quality. The hellish creatures are the stuff (and source) of nightmares. Dancers were actually cast in these roles to give each demon an almost balletic grace, making their jerky movements all the more disturbing. Roberto Campanella choreographed the movements of each creature and portrays the two most horrific of them—a tongue-flicking janitor and a baddie known only as Red Pyramid. These are without a doubt some of the most striking bogeymen that I have seen on screen in a long time. It's just a shame a better movie wasn't constructed around them.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has delivered "Silent Hill" on DVD, and they have given it a stunning, high-definition transfer. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image superbly retains all of the film's twisted beauty. Contrast is excellent, and the dark atmosphere is perfectly conveyed with deep black levels. Colors are generally muted, but there are some bright, daylight scenes at the beginning and very end of the movie, and they boast vibrant colors and fine saturation here. Picture clarity is solid throughout, making this an eye-opening feast.
There is also no slacking in the audio department, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that packs a punch. Aggressive when need be, this soundtrack enhances the mood of the film, distributing the unnerving sound effects around all channels for a skin-crawling experience. Dialogue comes through naturally while foley and music pound thunderously around the back speakers. You will feel veritably trapped in the world of "Silent Hill," with the audio providing an almost claustrophobic sensation around you.
The only notable bonus on this disc is a 6-part featurette called "Path of Darkness: Making 'Silent Hill.'" At 59 minutes, this is a compact little documentary with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew. All of the principal cast members are on hand to give their thoughts on the film, and the rest of the crew talk about their work, from the director to the make-up artists. Lots of attention is given to the creation of the terrifying villains. In addition to this feature, there are several previews for other releases from Sony.
I will not go on record as saying that "Silent Hill" is a good horror movie, because I honestly don't think it is. It is not even all that scary, so much as it is disturbing. However, the movie is a feast for the eyes and imagination, and video game fanatics will probably salivate over it. If you are looking for provocative Grand Guignol with tight suspense and clever storytelling, go elsewhere. If you like your nightmares served upfront without the clutter of dramatic structure, then "Silent Hill" should be your next stop.