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Silent Hill

Sony Pictures // R // August 22, 2006
List Price: $38.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Joshua Zyber | posted August 18, 2006 | E-mail the Author

"They used to say this place was haunted. I think they were right."
- Lead character Rose

"No shit, moron!"
- Audience

The Movie:
A few years ago, French director Christophe Gans sprung on the world his outrageously giddy horror/action hybrid Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups). The movie was great silly fun and a huge international hit. Naturally, Hollywood came calling and, sensing that this guy had some real filmmaking chops, immediately signed him up for the first crappy video game adaptation they had available. I guess Uwe Boll must have been booked. The resulting film, Silent Hill, is a painful exercise in wasted potential, a movie that so very much wants to be good but just can't be, no matter how hard it tries. The project has genuine ambition to be a real balls-to-the-wall, scare-the-shit-out-of-you horror movie that will put to shame the glut of PG-13 teen schlock that passes itself off as the horror genre these days, but unfortunately is limited by the fact that… well, it's a fucking video game adaptation, and those by definition suck.

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:
Silent Hill debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

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.

The Silent Hill Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG2 compression on a single-layer 25 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.

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.

The movie's soundtrack is provided in uncompressed PCM 5.1 format or in standard Dolby Digital 5.1. Now this is where I have nothing but good things to say. Silent Hill has an excellent audio mix and, for all the visual compromises it causes, the PCM track sounds amazing. The Industrial score is perhaps a little clichéd and the film overuses cheap stinger cues, but this is a loud, immersive, at times overwhelming soundtrack presented with excellent fidelity. The surround channels are constantly active with creepy noises and atmospherics, and the sound designers certainly don't skimp on the house-shaking bass. The air raid siren that blares whenever the monsters come out is simply outstanding and may cause your heart to skip a beat or two. Great work all around here.

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:
Optional subtitles – English subtitles or English captions for the hearing impaired.
Alternate language tracks - N/A.

There's not a damn thing on the disc except some HD previews for other unrelated Sony horror movies: Underworld Evolution, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and Basic Instinct 2.

Missing from the standard DVD edition is an hour-long making-of documentary.

Easter Eggs:
Hidden on the disc is a selection of HD test patterns. You can access these by entering 7669 on your remote control from the disc's main menu. Use the Skip button to page through the patterns. Please note that due to an error in the Sony encoder used to author the disc, blacker-than-black and whiter-than-white portions of the video signal have been clipped, essentially rendering the Brightness and Contrast calibration patterns useless.

Final Thoughts:
An interesting but deeply flawed horror movie, there are certain elements to recommend about Silent Hill but overall it disappoints. The Blu-ray quality is also hit-or-miss. Dedicated horror fans may be ready to purchase, but for most a rental will suffice.

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Pitch Black (HD DVD)
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