"They used to say this place was haunted. I think they were right."
- Lead character Rose
"No shit, moron!"
When it comes to creating a sustained creepy atmosphere and gruesomely horrific imagery, Silent Hill deserves an Oscar. Sadly, when it comes to such fundamental things as story, character, dialogue, or plot, it falls completely apart. Radha Mitchell, who proved capable of carrying a stylish B-movie with the excellent Pitch Black, stars as Rose, a well-intentioned mom whose adopted daughter has some issues. The little girl has a habit of sleepwalking off to dangerous places in the middle of the night (maybe they might consider moving away from that cliff edge) and usually wakes up muttering the name "Silent Hill". You'd think that therapy and medication might be a good course of action, and loving husband (Sean Bean) would agree, but momma Rose decides instead to flee from her home and take the girl to the infamous ghost town that was the site of a tragic coal fire and that everyone tells her is haunted. Great idea, genius. On the way they get pulled over for a traffic violation and Rose, for no explicable reason, peels off and engages in a high speed chase through the dark country night before passing through the Silent Hill perimeter and immediately crashing. When she wakes up a few hours later, daughter Sharon is missing. Wandering through the abandoned town in search of the brat, Rose finds herself trapped in a hellish nightmare filled with sickening displays of depravity and chased by terrifying monsters. Her only allies of sorts are the sexy motorcycle cop who followed her into town and a freaky religious cult of survivors led by Alice Krige (the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact), none of whom offer much protection from the swarming demons made of fiery ash, the repulsive mutated zombies, or the giant behemoth dude with an anvil for a head.
The movie is based on a video game and feels it every step of the way. The characters are all basically idiots who behave without a whit of common sense. They do things and go places because it's required in order to get from Level A to Level B, not because they have any rational motivation for it. The story's action progresses with game logic, not human logic. Clues are conveniently left for the hero to find. Obstacles, traps, and mazes must be puzzled through, all of which will feel familiar to anyone who's ever played a survival-horror game. There's the rickety girder to walk across, the pit to swing over on a dangling cable, the chain-link fences to climb, and the door that must be opened with the right key before the monsters get there. The dialogue is terribly stilted to convey reams of plot and backstory information, and never feels natural, despite Mitchell's conviction in delivering it. The actress really tries her damnedest to pull this off but just isn't given enough to work with.
It's truly a shame, because the movie has a lot going for it. Carol Spiers' production design is astoundingly good, and the gloomy photography is gorgeous in its way. Gans directs the hell out of this picture, masterfully conveying its spooky atmospherics. When Rose first walks down the main street amidst a snowfall of cinder and ash, pure dread is palpable in the air. And when the big scares come, Gans doesn't hold back at all. There's some truly disturbing, no-holds-barred scary shit in this movie. Bodies are flayed or ripped to pieces left and right. People are roasted alive on camera in unblinking, extremely convincing close-up. These aren't just hokey gore, either. The intensity of some of these scenes is really unsettling. The movie earns its hard "R" rating.
But story is everything, and on that mark Silent Hill falters. Both painfully simplistic and needlessly convoluted at the same time, even a fantastically stylized expository flashback at the end (really, the scene is terrific) can't pull everything together. There are pieces of greatness in the movie, and horror fans may find a lot to rewatch again and again, but you just never care about the characters and at 125 minutes the movie runs way too long. The finale is meant to be a head-scratcher that only sort of makes sense, and I don't know what they were thinking with the ridiculously mood-breaking song that plays over the end credits. I really liked certain things about Silent Hill, but on the whole it's a disappointment. Calling it the best video game adaptation ever would be damning it with faint praise. I hope Gans is allowed to do better next time, because I know he has it in him.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
Here we have yet another wildly inconsistent HD transfer from Sony. The movie has terrific photography and production design that should make nice High Definition eye candy, but what we get on disc alternates between periods of mediocre, awful, great, mediocre, great, and awful again. There are a few selected scenes that have excellent sharpness, detail, and depth, but in more scenes than not the picture looks very flat and lacking. Since this is a Sony disc, it should go without saying that a minor presence of edge enhancement is par for the course. The contrast range seems to be artificially compressed, with shallow black levels and dulled whites. Scenes inside the ghost town look appropriately stark and dreary, but scenes in the outside world have weirdly oversaturated colors and reddish flesh tones that just look off. I could be wrong, but I don't think this was an artistic decision. It doesn't have the typical appearance of digitally manipulated color timing; it looks like someone misadjusted their settings during the telecine transfer.
More problematic, and unfortunately typical for Blu-ray, is that the MPEG2 compression just can't handle a movie of this length and visual complexity when burdened with Blu-ray's current space limitations and bit-hungry PCM audio. Dark scenes (which comprise most of the movie) often exhibit noisy grain. There's also a lot of high frequency noise in fine object detail such as facial features during medium and wide shots. Many parts of the movie look fine, but in the busiest scenes the compression totally breaks down. For example, shots outside during the ashen snowfall just have way too much going on in the frame and are overwhelmed with ugly compression noise. Don't mistake what I'm describing. This isn't photographic grain; it's an obvious digital compression artifact. The scene where our heroine wakes up in the bowling alley is also an unholy compression nightmare, with giant swarms of electronic noise all over the screen. Then, a few shots later it totally clears up and looks fine again.
As I mentioned, some scenes are perfectly good and a few even great, but as a whole the disc is too much of a mixed bag. When will Sony ever get it right?
The Silent Hill Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
It's just too bad that PCM does so much damage to the video bit-rate. If the Blu-ray format were ready to support them, a losslessly compressed format like Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio could have offered the same audio quality without sacrificing the video.
Subs & Dubs:
Missing from the standard DVD edition is an hour-long making-of documentary.