First things first: Why in the name of Sony Playstation is “Silent Hill” 127 minutes long? Cheap, nearly plot-less horror movies based on video games should be 100 minutes AT THE MOST. 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.
Now then. Written by Tarantino associate Roger Avary and directed by Christophe Gans (of the admirably over-the-top cult hit “Brotherhood of the Wolf”), “Silent Hill” has a pedigree better than most game adaptations, and I jotted in my notes that it starts off with an air of respectability, even legitimacy. There is no before-the-credits opening slaughter, and we’re 20 minutes in before anyone even gets attacked by mutants! What is this, a Merchant-Ivory production?!
The mutants, when they do arrive, are on the heels of Rose De Silva (Radha Mitchell), who is searching the West Virginia ghost town of Silent Hill for her 9-year-old daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland). Once a mining village, Silent Hill shut down in 1974 after an accident, and a coal fire still burns below the ground, filling the air with ashes and soot. Rose and Sharon came here because the child keeps having nightmares about the place, but a car accident on the way knocked Rose unconscious. When she woke up, Sharon was gone, apparently lost within the town itself.
Rose’s husband, Christopher (Sean Bean), was opposed to the idea of visiting a dead town that his daughter has nightmares about (seems like a no-brainer, really), but Rose took off without telling him. He has several scenes with unhelpful police officers as he tries to locate his wife and daughter. You could remove every one of those scenes without losing any of the story, while cutting probably 10 minutes off the running time. (I’m just sayin’.)
In the town, Rose wanders from one dusty, dilapidated building to the next, yelling “Sharon!” a lot and looking intense and frantic (and, occasionally, blood-spattered). She encounters a sexy leather-clad motorcycle cop (Laurie Holden) who alternates between helping and hindering her, and they both meet various zombie nurses (I think), burning mutant children (I think) and, finally, a Christian cult of zealots who like to call heretics “witches” and set them on fire.
(By the way, it is impossible to see an angry mob yell “Witch!” and “Burn her!” without 1) thinking of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and 2) laughing.)
These neo-puritans hold the key to all of Silent Hill’s spooky goings-on, and it 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. But the movie considers it an explanation, and the characters seem satisfied with it, so I guess that’s enough. Maybe you had to be there, i.e., actually IN the movie.
It is paradoxical that while the film begins so non-graphically, it ends in exactly the opposite manner, with possessed barbed wire emerging from the floor to rip apart, dissect and generally eviscerate everyone in its path. It does this in full view of poor little Sharon — CLASSY, movie. Classy.
Gans can evoke atmosphere like nobody’s business, and I do admire the way he hints at Christopher’s investigation and Rose’s search for Sharon being in different dimensions (or something), with his scenes being sunny and hers overcast. I would admire it a lot more, however, if it amounted to something scary, creepy or original.
Note: I’m told that if you are intimately familiar with the “Silent Hill” video game, the film makes a lot more sense. That may be true. But sensical or not, it would still be repetitive and dull. SO THERE.
C- (2 hrs., 7 min.; )
In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.