This town will surely win
There is a long history of video game franchises making it to the big screen, and most of its cadaverous remains speaks of an agonized demise. The reason for this gruesome metaphor is that one of the rare film adaptations to get it right is Silent Hill, after Konami’s Japanese horror series. It seemed fitting to stay on theme.
If you want a good scare, just watch any of the flailing attempts from the past twenty years. Super Mario Bros, anyone? How about Mortal Kombat, or Street Fighter? Max Payne? I haven’t even seen the Doom film, but apparently it has a whole bit in first person perspective, which can’t help but miss the point entirely. I will grant that the Tomb Raider films are at least somewhat amusing. In contrast to that, Silent Hill is, shockingly, a pretty good horror film! One that even manages to stay true to its source material.
It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving series. Silent Hill is emphatically not about cheap scares. It deals in psychological horror. Its tools are inducing a feeling of powerlessness, and confrontations with the bizarre and the grotesque. The crucial thing in these games is that you are ill-equipped to deal with the manifestations that cross your path. In any other game the enemy is there to be destroyed. Here you must run away. This triggers a real sense of vulnerability and with that, effective horror. The monsters are generally reflections of the scarred psyche of whomever you're playing with. They’re tormented phantoms, twisting into fleshy shapes. Silent Hill functions as the personal hell of anyone who enters.
The translation of all this to the silver screen has worked. We follow the story of a woman who goes on a journey into the titular countryside town to find her daughter. The latter had all sorts of strange nightmares and now they seem to come true. Silent Hill is a hellish place where blaring sirens announce the descent into an alternate realm of barbed wire, screeching gears, rusty metal and ghoulish creatures lying in wait. Finding each other here will involve a superhuman effort.
Besides the competence with which the plot is laid out and the beautiful art direction, one of the reasons the adaptation is successful is how true to form it feels. Just as in the game, there is a vagueness to it, an uneasy feeling of riddles unanswered. The characters populating the town are restless wanderers. You never quite know how much they understand or if they’re even aware of what is happening. It captures that distinctly Japanese sense of the unexplained, that also fuels the games.
One less good consequence of the film is the canonization of Silent Hill’s various elements, themes and monsters. Take for instance Pyramid Head, a towering naked man pulling along a giant knife and carrying an industrial helmet with a triangle shape. This stark figure was the nemesis of James Sunderland, the second game’s protagonist. It haunted and stalked him throughout the story, symbolizing James’ feeling of guilt that wouldn’t let him go. With the occurrence of this film, however, Pyramid Head has been promoted to a ‘Silent Hill regular’. He shows up not because it makes sense thematically, but because he’s a familiar face of the franchise. Already, games that came after the movie featured many Pyramid Heads. He’s just something you put into a Silent Hill now. It’s slightly sad, since those moves precede the creative death of a series. Things become ‘canon’, immutable, predictable, boring. This progression is almost impossible to prevent, generally, and no one can say how long Silent Hill will remain fresh, if it is still alive in the first place. The dreadful outpouring of games in recent years has been a sign of the end, in any case.
Ironically, the film series is looking up. I look forward to seeing the recent sequel, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D. It deals with the events of the third game, my personal favorite, starring one of gaming’s few female leads: Heather. If this film turns out to be anywhere as good as the first, Silent Hill might just live on in cinematic form.