Coal Miner's Horror

Despite admirable elements, 'Silent Hill' is an unwatchable mess

Silent Hill should have been a decent movie. With Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf) at the helm, art direction by the folks behind such films as A History of Violence and Dead Ringers, and the decent casting of Radha Mitchell, this looked to be the video-game adaptation to beat all video-game adaptations.

Then the studio decided to hide it from the critics. Usually not a good sign.

At first, it seems as if the studio was being a little paranoid. Silent Hill is a terrific-looking movie. Its combination of atmospherics, camerawork and excellent old-school and CGI effects make it one of the year's better-looking films to date. And while the setup for the movie isn't exactly first rate, the film is far from bad for its first half hour or so.

Then--quite appropriately, considering the subject matter--the film goes to hell. The second half, when a religious cult becomes the film's focus, is incomprehensibly, unforgivably awful.

The film is inspired by a popular video game that I only played once (some freaky ghost thing scared the piss out of me, so I decided there were better things to do with my free time). The story, if you should choose to call it that, involves a woman named Rose (Mitchell) and her creepy child, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland). When the child starts sleepwalking and screaming out "Silent Hill!" in the middle of the night, Mom decides it's a good time for a road trip and takes her daughter to the place that haunts the kid's nightmares. That's a good mommy.

While approaching the town with the scary name, a ghost girl that happens to look like Sharon steps in front of the car ('cause that's what ghost girls do), and there's a wreck. The creepy non-ghost-girl daughter takes off on a nocturnal walkabout and gets lost in Silent Hill, giving mom an excuse to scream "Sharon!" every freaking five seconds.

Silent Hill has the appearance of a place on the outskirts of a volcanic eruption, with gray ash constantly falling like snow. A coal-mine fire has been burning for years, rendering the area a virtual ghost town. The occasional inhabitant, including the aforementioned ghost girl, darts by the camera or offers up a solemn speech about everybody being doomed.

I confess to being freaked out by some parts of the movie, especially in its first half. Rose is accosted by a variety of ghosts that are increasingly creative and spooky. Faceless burned child ghosts, still glowing like embers, squeal in a way that causes major discomfort. A pedophilic ghost contorted by barbed wire emerges from a soiled bathroom stall, a black tongue flicking out of his mouth. Some bizarre nurse ghosts travel in packs, moving spasmodically and slashing each other's throats as they miss their prey. Still other ghosts spew what appears to be acid when attacked.

But sporadically cool ghost moments do not a good movie make. Sure, it can amount to a decent video game where the participant gets to fight back, protect themselves and take breaks by hitting the pause button. With the movie, this is not an option, and when a witch-hunting ghost played by Alice Krige starts overacting, it becomes intolerable.

There's not much else good that can be said about the film. Most who have played the video game will probably agree that Mitchell makes for a decent Rose. There are plenty of touches, like the female cop and a villain named Pyramid Head, that will make gaming fans happy. For those not familiar with the world of Silent Hill, these aspects will have little to no effect.

A lot of good work has been wasted on a pitiful picture. Silent Hill is the worst kind of bad movie, because it has elements that can be admired buried within a mostly unwatchable mess.

Silent Hill is not showing in any theaters in the area.

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