The sorry track record for vidgame-to-bigscreen translations goes unchallenged by “Silent Hill,” though above-average interest is generated for a time by “Brotherhood of the Wolf” helmer Christophe Gans’ elaborate visual package. Alas, that interest deteriorates as story comes into focus, with scares decreasing and scattered unintentional laughs increasing during pic’s long runtime. Gamers and horror fans pushed pic to a $20 mil opening, and word-of-mouth is unlikely to prevent a sharp B.O. falloff. Unlike “Brotherhood,” Canadian-French co-prod probably won’t do significantly better abroad than in North America, though worldwide ancillary prospects are solid.
The Konami game series has been a high-water mark among horror games, its four entries to date lauded for striking artwork and chilling atmospherics rather than simple gory action. Gans’ film succeeds fairly well along those same lines for about half its length, but, with horror-fantasy films especially, it’s the climactic reels that really count.
While myriad elements will trigger deja vu for game fans, Roger Avary’s script revolves around an original character, Rose (Radha Mitchell), her husband Christopher (Sean Bean), and their adopted child Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), who often sleepwalks, screaming the titular location’s name when found.
After a particularly harrowing such episode, Rose decides to find the West Virginia ghost town and try to jog loose whatever trauma Sharon may have suppressed since being abandoned as an infant.
Silent Hill has been “shut” since 1974, when a charcoal fire — that’s still smoldering underground — killed most of the inhabitants. The constant “snow”-fall is in fact ash — hence the road is sealed off to keep out curiosity seekers. Re-creating game’s imagery, this grayish-black small town of empty streets, semi-collapsed buildings and dank interiors is a triumph for production designer Carol Spier and collaborators.
Knocked out in a car accident upon arrival, Rose awakes to find Sharon missing. Initial panicked searching reveals something is very wrong here — as when emergency sirens announce periodic reality-shifts into a subterranean world of Boschian grotesques, devouring cockroaches, and one nasty demon called Pyramid Head.
Rose is pulled onward by elusive glimpses of a child who may or may not be Sharon and is soon joined by local policewoman Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden). Later they meet Anna (Tanya Allen), their entree to a group of religious fanatics led by Christabella (Alice Krige, resembling Katharine Hepburn at her most Puritan-imperious). For Rose to rescue Sharon, she must fight monsters and religious nutcases plus satisfy the vengeance needs of her daughter’s doppelganger.
Story’s climax makes the most vivid use of barbed wire since “Suspiria,” but is too literal-minded and wordy after so much enigmatic buildup. In the end, “Silent Hill” degenerates into an overblown replay of all those “Twilight Zone” and Stephen King stories in which outsiders stumble upon a time-warped location from which there’s no escape.
As Sharon’s evil twin, Ferland has to deliver a late glut of garrulous explication (“I am the Reaper!”) that no child thesp could pull off. A few minutes later, Mitchell gets a big speech seemingly lifted from “The Crucible,” and goes down for the count, too.
Indeed, the situations here are so fantastical and extreme that Avary’s dialogue often risks silliness. Bean and Kim Coates (as a police inspector) have thankless, sidelined roles; Deborah Kara Unger, in fright wig and Kabuki makeup, is not much more favored.
Despite earnest stabs at psychological depth, not to mention pic’s impressive gore and design tropes, final effect is negligible. Even more than in gaga genre hybrid “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” Gans appears so engrossed by the opportunities for baroque style that he doesn’t notice the creeping dearth of content.
Tech contribs are first-rate down the line, including those of myriad f/x companies. The occasional trip-hop beats of Jeff Danna’s score, however, seem a tad incongruous; musique-concrete creepiness a la tomandandy (“The Hills Have Eyes”) would have better suited surreal, timeless tenor.