Christophe Gans’ adaptation of Silent Hill is one of the better videogame films out there, a title as honorable and unchallenged as “Best Logger Using Only Teeth” or “Suma Cum Laude: Class of Infant Punching.” Most videogame movies of that decade were directed by Uwe Bolle, is the point. At any rate, what we have here is the beginning of the fan-helmed SH products, a well-meant but rocky period that came to a screeching halt with Homecoming (no doubt this film’s dire financial straits did nothing to help the situation). They tend to be characterized by some good ideas and a pet interest in putting a spin on some particular set of themes from the existing works, as fans are wont to do. And that fact helps the film come dangerously close to working in some respects while dragging it down irreparably in others, leaving us with a pretty, bewildering mess.
I’m also pretty sure Christophe Gans thinks he made a feminist horror movie.
Systems of Oppression
While Silent Hill the game was centered around the idea of being acted on by nebulous forces outside of one’s understanding and control, with a heavy bent toward sight-unseen conspiracies, Silent Hill the movie is all about power structures. More importantly, it’s about how those power structures will absolutely fuck you over, given the chance. The Church of Silent Hill caused the nightmare realm by burning Alessa as a witch, the constantly burning mines causing the ash snow and all the dead miners who were trapped down there were a result of, one presumes, the mining company not keeping up to date on safety regulations; the police as a system exist as a stupid, bureaucratic monolith that’s more interested in maintaining than pursuing truth (note that Cybil only becomes humanized as a character once the markers of her police garb are pretty shredded); and Sean Bean’s entire useless subplot that contributes neatly to tanking the film’s pacing is a sad meta joke on how the input of the executive system dilutes art.
It is not this film’s fault the Certain Game that followed lacked the creativity of these actual real-people sets
Even the sets – one of the true unknockable wonders of the film, in no small part thanks to snagging Carole “worked on two of Cronenberg’s best films (Naked Lunch and The Fly)” Spier – emphasize the idea of structure and restriction, all narrow claustrophobic spaces and buildings broken down into singular rickety paths. Unlike the games, which exist to an extent under Alessa’s will but have blossomed well beyond that thanks to the town’s implicit sentience, almost every structure in the film has been created. It’s a strength of visual design that doesn’t really work thematically, and in fact leads into one of the film’s biggest problems: there’s too many damn people in it.
After the first beautiful half hour, the people who made those systems feel the need to show up and start explaining things. Dahlia’s empty church powered by a singular mad vision has become a very populous entity making a very boring statement against a pseudo-Christian stand in (which the first game wasn’t interested in, and did with far more subtlety in SH3 than is on display here). The inexplicable snowfall now comes from a concrete event. Rescuing Alessa seems to move the town permanently back to a foggy (and by the soundtrack’s implication, almost peaceful) state, and everything on the whole winds up feeling more pat than its source material. And because its focus is on the individual within the group (a legitimate horror topic that nonetheless requires a very different structural setup) rather than isolation from other individuals and inescapable, creeping dread, it’s no longer scary. And if it’s not scary, what is it?
Gans Thinks Feminism Things
Like I said, it definitely thinks it’s feminist. And on a basic level, it’s hard to deny the appeal of the Cybil and Rose scenes when both characters are given life by such talented actors. Taking out the Sean Bean who shouldn’t have been, it is a film populated and driven by a 90% female cast, and that’s a regrettably rare occurrence in any genre. But oh, how the film has trouble with this nice idea in practice.
Say it with me now: “Mother is God in the eyes of a child.” The film would like you to know that this is its central theme in no uncertain terms, and it bludgeons the viewer to death with the idea long before it gives up and just has a character tell us the theme (not including all the times that Gans talked about it in press junket interviews, just to make reeeeeeeally sure we got it). The servicing of this theme is largely why we have Rose instead of Harry, and I suspect why we have the separation of Christabella and Dahlia – the script was already pushing it by having more or less all of the lady leads be motivated by protectiveness over a child/conflict over their duty to motherhood; even Gans probably stepped back and said, ‘hmmm, perhaps having our female villain be the epitome of Bad Motherhood is a little on the nose.’ And while there’s nothing wrong with maternal feelings as a driving force for a female character (Michiko and Hatchin and Aliens did it splendidly, just off the top of my head), it’s hard to reconcile the deification of that long-acceptable motivating factor with a film that visually and structurally (to the detriment of that lonely atmosphere I was discussing) wants to be about the suffocating power of systems. And it kind of is, but not in the way that Gans probably thought it was.
It’s not you, it’s the script!
Needs More Harry Mason
The secondary men of SH the film exist on a sliding scale of ‘well-meaning oppressive force’ and ‘personification of evil,’ with Sean Bean on the former end and Pyramid Head on the latter. This might have also kickstarted the era of Pyramid Head Fanservice, but at least here he retains his thematic weight as ‘symbol of the lurking threat of masculine sexual violence’ (an idea whose weight the film cheerfully throws out the window when it’s time for the infamous barbed wire scene). The movie goes so far as to set up a literal uncrossable space by film’s end, with Rose and Sharon continuing to exist in the ‘fog’ of Silent Hill’s feminine space while Sean Bean goes about experiencing the very same setting in an entirely different mode (an extremely cool idea in a better movie). But while Gans was busy hammering home that idea of motherhood, he missed the much better movie he could’ve made with Harry Mason.
It’s been quoted to death that as he and Avery were writing the film, they realized that SH is an inherently ‘feminine’ series of games (which I can’t dispute – I’ve talked about it a fair deal, after all), and that because Harry was driven predominantly by ‘maternal’ instincts it made more sense to turn him into Rose. Likewise, the last decade has been devoted to why this is a stupid idea, and robs the film of its very unique brand of hero: one whose primary devotion is to his child, who is not particularly action oriented, and who was created in a story structure that went a long way to divorce gender from the drives and concepts associated with its characters (particularly the ‘parenthood’ foil between Harry and Dahlia).
One of the core ideas behind modern (“third wave”) feminism is that the structure of the patriarchy isn’t a simple binary of men versus women, but rather a restrictive system of impossible roles that hurts everyone within it. The same system that might encourage, say, the idea that strong parental instincts should be inherently gendered as a female trait, say. In fact, many of the already existing scenes would be improved by the inclusion of Harry (I say some, because nothing’s ever going to fix that third act exposition dump): Cybil’s suspicion of kidnapping makes even more sense, both as a likely conclusion for a cop to come to based on case histories and a perception for a single father to work against; because Harry lacks James’ baggage, Pyramid Head stands out even more starkly as an image of toxic masculinity (and of what Cybil expected him to be); and the final scene even further separates Harry out from the reality where he ‘should’ fit as a man but doesn’t (and because he is a man driven by ‘maternity’ he exists in neither place, but in a kind of limbo sustained by his love for his daughter). Of course, there’s the potential that this could all turn into Wicker Man remake style ‘one good man against the evils of a female-run society,’ but the optimist in me says that the predominantly female cast of various sympathies and motives would’ve been able to keep it more or less on track.
Retroactive wishing aside, the film as it stands is all we have: gorgeously shot with a few very talented actors, gutted by the fact that it isn’t remotely frightening and has one of the clunkiest scripts I’ve run across in a film that carries the veneer of competency in so many other areas. Love of the thing you’re adapting, it seems, isn’t always enough to get through. But we’ll have at least one more game to explore that idea.