Not So Silent Hill or I Am the Reaper
In Centralia, Pennsylvania, there is a fire burning underground.
There were no monsters. Just flames blossoming through a coal mine. But the sinkholes and the toxic fumes were enough to transform Centralia into a ghost town.
Film director Christophe Gans took those ghosts and gave them bodies and an even more fucked up backstory. Enter Silent Hill a blood-rust nightmare forged from one town’s collective sin. A place that is very much off the grid, outside the laws of reality and Google Maps. Here there be monsters, Lovecraftian creatures birthed in the fire of the mines and set loose upon our poor protagonists: Brave mother, Rose, her daughter Sharon, and policewoman Cybil. And a bunch of cultists, but they started this whole thing, so we don’t feel that bad for them.
Here witches aren’t born, they’re made. This is one of my favorite plot points, especially in horror films. Righteous revenge. Comeuppance. Carrie White scorching her senior prom. Jason rising from the dead to terrorize Camp Crystal Lake. Writers Roger Avary, Nicolas Boukhrief, and Gans give Alessa/Sharon a similar history to explain the truly terrifying darkness that plagues Silent Hill. This is revealed to us in snippets of flashback and then finally by the reaper itself, a scene that really showcases the acting talent of Jodelle Micah Ferland (how is this little girl so cute and also so creepy?). Here, blind faith and fear are the real villains; is it a coincidence the Brethren’s leader is named Christabella (beautiful Christ)? Talk about your false prophets.
I imagine adapting a popular video game series into full-length film must be challenging, a struggle to balance the source material with an engaging story for all moviegoers. Most viewers who were unhappy with the result criticized the movie’s vague plot. I politely disagree. Silent Hill is a world with its own rules. If you want to survive, you better learn fast (there’s no time to put all the puzzle pieces together). The Cold War era sirens’ cry means the darkness is coming (more than just a metaphor); you can’t leave town (unless you’re Sean Bean; in which case, you miraculously make it through this movie intact); and don’t be afraid to make a deal with the devil (seriously, the cult that made this whole mess is so much worse). The movie also feels like a video game in many scenes, the most obvious being the armless man encounter with Cybil and Rose. The creature’s POV camera angle coming around the corner gives you that encroaching sense of dread you feel before going up against a minor boss.
I was always too scared to play horror video games (I still only watch walkthroughs online) because it meant you were a part of the story, reacting to terror in real time. So when I first watched the film six years after all the hype (thanks Sequoia), I still had zero context. Turns out, I didn’t need it. Because nothing makes sense once you cross the city limits into Silent Hill, and sometimes that’s just how curses work. Fear isn’t about having all the answers. Fear is a missing child. Fear is a church with no sanctuary. Sirens promising a storm we cannot weather.
At least, not without a little blood. Or buckets full. Silent Hill does not aim for subtlety. This movie packs a punch in the carnage department including Cybil’s unfortunate slow roast over the sacrificial fire and Pyramid Head’s skinning of a young woman on the steps of the church. And that guy in the bathroom stall permanently stuck in the king pigeon yoga pose so much nope. But then again just the mutant roaches alone would’ve sent me running for the hills (pun intended).
What’s especially impressive is that very little in these horrific scenes is computer generated. Makeup and old school special effects go a long way to make the horror feel gritty and bloody raw. So much so that you might need to rage-clean your house or take a shower after watching. The barbed-wire massacre at the movie’s end would make the Cenobites downright jealous. And the organ-rich score really brings hell to the surface, not to mention the screams. Poor Sharon is going to need some serious therapy after this is all over.
I’m also a big fan of costumes that show the wear and tear of a long ordeal, those little details that remind us how far a character has come. Like Rose’s blood-soaked dress, evidence of the violence she’s witnessed and suffered through. Though it’s also Radha Mitchell’s performance (I’m sorry I’ve often confused your for Charlize Theron. You’re also awesome in Pitch Black)—an underrated badass and scream queen. She goes through literal hell and back to rescue her daughter with the help of Cybil, yet another badass woman. Apparently Gans was asked to include more of a male presence in the film and that’s what led to Sean Bean’s character, Christopher, who doesn’t really do anything except unsuccessfully search for his wife. This movie definitely passes the Bechdel test for me—strong women fighting monsters and good ole religious persecution.
I love Silent Hill, both as a horror universe and as a film. Haters gonna hate, but I am here for the writhing flesh and occult overtones. I am here for the feeling that there are so many shadows buried deep underground. As surely as the ash still falls.
M. Brett Gaffney holds an MFA in Poetry from Southern Illinois University. Her poems have appeared in Exit 7, Rust+Moth, Permafrost, Devilfish Review, museum of americana, BlazeVOX, Apex Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, and Zone 3, among others. Her chapbook Feeding the Dead (Porkbelly Press) was nominated for a 2018 Elgin Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. She works as co-editor of Gingerbread House and writes horror genre reviews in her spare time at No Outlet Horror Reviews.