Few things are more difficult than explaining your love for a bad movie. Which seems like a pretty straight-on indictment of Silent Hill Revelation, but hear me out. I didn’t just watch this movie, I stalked it. For years. I had director Michael J Bassett’s blog on about six different favorites lists, and I coveted every last promising screenshot and bit of news. And it was promising news, is the thing, spoken by a voice that was clearly an avid fan of the search material.
And then the movie itself came out. And well…alright, imagine a small child comes up to you and hands you a portrait they did of you. The picture in question is only vaguely humanoid in shape, and the drawing-you seems to have three feet of forehead and conspicuous stink lines. But the kid’s just looking up at you with such expectant, loving eyes that it’s kind of impossible to get mad. Maybe you find a way to “accidentally” lose the thing later, but you just can’t resent the effort. Plus, it provides us a unique opportunity to examine how good intentions can be eaten by the stifling demands of the mainstream film industry!
The Good (Yes It Exists)
Horror films, by their nature as visceral experiences, often live and die by their visuals. A corollary: horror movies are far more likely to be made on comparatively small budgets, given that the less-than-classic offerings are only going to get one or two watches and the goal is to maximize profits; therefore, there’s a lot of very cheap CG used as a stopgap and the overall look of the film suffers (thus crippling one of its major selling points, unless we’re talking a really strong script like, say, the marvelous Rise of Leslie Vernon).
You can accuse SHR of a lot of things, but disregarding its visual aesthetic is not one of them. While it lacks the haunting melancholy of that first 40 minutes of Gans’ Silent Hill film, it makes up for it in sheer committed grotesquerie. There are points where it feels almost like a giallo flick, throwing narrative coherence onto the bonfire in favor of stringing together a series of arresting tableaus. Which actually works on the fallback “if this was just a film and not a film based on a legacy” defense: the sets are well-dressed and detailed; and while a lot of the blood is that bright, bright red the fact that an overwhelming number of the effects are practical gives them an anchor in the universe of the story in a way that similarly fake CG wouldn’t. Even the little detail of having fake blood n’ guts on the set with the actors gives it miles more credibility than many of the film’s peers.
And while we’re going to have a nice long talk about totally-not-Jon-Snow, the film manages solid work in establishing the Harry/Heather bond early on. Sean Bean doesn’t even die, and that is an absurd twist of fate. But given that we have maybe 15 minutes of time between them before Harry is spirited off to Silent Hill, the actors make it count in selling how protective these two are of one another (even if it’s occasionally punctuated by a cheap fantasy chest punch).
And there are, of course, the monsters. It’s the biggest payoff for the practical effects, even if it does mean bringing back the overly ubiquitous SH2 nurses. And the film’s biggest addition of design, the mannequin spider, provides one of the most effectively tense and unsettling moments in the film.
It’s not hard to notice the nods to game canon that Bassett peppers throughout the film, from the nightmare carnival opening to the triple title nod in the last five minutes (I have no shame, I was delighted to see not-Murphy and not-Travis roll by), to little nods like Sean Bean’s dream-death mimicking what looks like his cause of death in SH3 (which didn’t happen, because they’re all living happily on a space ship). He’s fond, is my point, and while stories must almost always undergo a number of changes when being adapted across mediums there’s something sweet in the impulse to keep something in there “for the fans.” I’m even more or less impressed by how the script was more or less able to minimize the more idiotic bits of wholecloth from the Gans film.
But (and you had to know that “but” was coming) there’s the issue of balance. While there are any number of incidental references to the game canon, and while even the very broadest strokes of the plot remain the same, piling on those touchstones of surface similarity ultimately end up highlighting how vastly the movie differs in theme and structure.
Silent Hill Revelation is basically a string of set pieces that explodes all over itself in the third act, tied together by the Sean Bean McGuffin and whatever’s going on with Pod Vincent. And while there is an element of that in SH3 with Heather traveling through various locations toward an end goal and overcoming boss obstacles, that aspect has more to do with the mechanics of the game. Take out the “go from point A to B, shoot thing, repeat” (as one must when changing mediums) and the actual construction of the story is about cycles. Heather crosses paths with Vincent, Douglas, and Claudia at different points in the game not just because she’s changed locations but because she’s facing a new aspect of her identity and grappling with what she should do, and the way her relationships to those people change draws attention to the way in which Heather herself is growing and changing as a protagonist (while also tying thematically to the idea that she has gone through three “cycles” of herself as Alessa, Cheryl, and Heather). And then also how awesome she is at beating debatable monstrosities to death with her non-copyright infringing lightsaber.
By reducing the majority of the supporting cast to plot devices that propel Heather from one scene to the next, much of that nuance is lost (it wouldn’t be impossible to recreate that depth in a film, but it would take a much smarter script than we’re working with here). It tries to patch this by rewriting Vincent as a fellow teenager and companion for Heather (with a bonus irritating subplot about Not Fitting In at High School) and that. Is not. It’s not. Listen.
Bassett’s reasoning for rewriting Vincent’s role is, from a pragmatist’s perspective, sound: unlike the primary antagonist Claudia or transport source and exposition dumper Douglas, Vincent doesn’t really serve a concrete purpose in the plot. He’s hugely important thematically as well as being a ton of fun, but it’s a plausible cut when you’re going from an 8 hour game to a 90 minute movie. So, rewriting? Sure. It’s just that they wrote all personality out of him. There is absolutely a version of this film where Vincent could’ve been both an aid to Heather and a slightly sinister creep, someone who could’ve even kept his background with the Order but defected for fairly selfish reasons and is now doing Douglas’ task of guiding Heather from place to place. It would’ve tweaked him enough to make him relevant without removing his core character traits, and created a sense of internal danger for Heather in addition to the more obvious monsters (and then if you still kill him off it’s potentially a nice, poignant redemptive moment or something. There’s potential, I’m saying).
Instead, we have…we have a filler of space about whom I remember basically nothing, and I’m not sure that’s entirely Kit Harrington’s fault (though he is wildly miscast). This simply is not a story made to bear the burden of two protagonists (as film!Vincent more or less ends up being, with his conflict over the Order and all that jazz). It weakens the focus on Heather (whose already a bit of a shadow of her wonderful brash self) and brings nothing to bolster that back up – indeed, it adds insult to injury with the positively cancerous undertones of awkward attraction it insists on crowbarring into their scenes together.
It’s completely unfair to say that Kit Harrington or his role break the film, but they are symptomatic of what the film is willing to let go of to make itself palatable as a movie. There’s a difference between conforming to the storytelling style of a different art and conforming to a marketable formula at the cost of what made the material worthwhile in the first place, and SHR ends up in the latter category far too often to really be anything one could call good as a horror fan or a Silent Hill fan.
I did start this off by saying I have some fondness for the film, so let’s close with that. Those of you who also slammed down $8 at the multiplex may remember that the writers apparently backed themselves into a corner (or had a really solid betting pool going) and wound up resolving the film with a punch up between monster Claudia and Pyramid Head. It is as perplexing and tonally inconsistent a moment as it is kind of glorious in a high-on-pure-kinetic-energy way (I all but guarantee this is the effects at work again, as watching two talented stunt workers in elaborate monster costumes an admirable and sadly rare sight).
It is so stupid, and so fully committed to its stupidity, that is suffices as a moment of absurd gory spectacle. And while I’m not sure I’d pick either film for an enthusiastic serious viewing (certainly not one made alone and sober), there is a part of me that respects Bassett’s earnest gorehound take more than Gans’ so-close-but-so-disastrously-wrong version. The latter soared close to the sun only to chuck its competence out the window and ruin the atmosphere with too many characters and the world’s worst exposition dump (on top of the clusterfuck of adapting Harry and the central themes); SHR is dumb, sure, but it’s an honest kind of dumb. One never feels that it was trying less than 110% with every second it had, even if it failed to understand what it was doing on just about every level. It doesn’t make the movie good, but there’s something endearing about it.