Monday, January 31, 2011

On Fandom And Its Problematic Demands: Silent Hill

Warning: Spoilers will follow.

Not all of the problems with modern horror movies are due to business concerns. Some are, but the reason studios churn out sequel after sequel and create "franchises" is that they continue to be profitable. People keep going to see the movies, no matter how mediocre or even shitty they are, as long as they push specific buttons. However, as pernicious the effect of the profit motive on art might be, I think the effect of devoted fandom is no less damaging.

As I see it, the negative effects of fandom are two-fold: On the one hand, fans can be accepting - almost too accepting, as if value is conferred upon something merely by its association with the object of fandom. The qualification "for fans of" often just means "this movie can't stand on its own as a piece of film, but it is guaranteed to appeal to people for whom genre tropes are more important than the whole." And yes, opinion is only opinion, taste is subjective, but I think we can agree that all horror movies are not equally successful at what they set out to do. However, horror film is also a genre (an unfairly maligned one), and as such, devotion to the genre may supersede rigorous criticism. Enough people already talk shit about horror movies, why add to it? 

Hence, the "for fans of" dodge - you can engage in something resembling criticism and still identify yourself as a fan of the genre. So on the one hand, to the extent that a fan community organizes around the genre, rather than appreciating well-made films, there's a potential market for, well, crap. Crap gets distribution, crap gets fan-centered media outlets to publicize it enough to garner it an audience, and that audience is uncritical enough to continue the cycle. But at the end of the day, that's just another expression of the profit motive. 

On the other hand, fans can be mercilessly critical about issues of canonicity. Once a story or world has been established, devoted fans' attention to continuity and consistency can approach orthodoxy. Hell hath no fury like that of someone who finds out that Halloween is being remade, or that zombies are fast now, or that Robert Englund isn't playing Freddie Krueger in the remake. If there's going to be a sequel to a popular film, it needs to not only live up to the first, but be consistent and in continuity with the first. As a result, you get the sort of Pandora's Box that is the overarching story (such as it is) behind the Saw series. Or, in the case of movies adapted from other media, insistence on rigid consistency and continuity with the original property. Never mind that often what works in one medium does not work well in another. When Tolkien's Ring trilogy was adapted for the screen, there were people furious that every single side story and incidental character was not included. In one of the most ambitious film adaptations mounted in the modern age, one stretching to damn near 12 hours in its extended form, people were angry that they didn't include a singing gnome who appears for somewhere around one chapter

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining is, in my opinion, one of the best horror films ever made. It does, however, take many liberties with the original book. Stephen King didn't like the liberties and threw his endorsement behind a miniseries version shown on television. The miniseries was certainly more faithful to the book, down to dialogue. The miniseries did have things to recommend it, but the one thing it wasn't was balls-out terrifying. What works in books doesn't work on the screen, and vice versa. Strict continuity is often at the expense of narrative and aesthetic quality.

Case in point? Silent Hill.

Silent Hill is based on a series of video games dealing with supernatural goings-on in the titular resort town. Something terrible (or several somethings) happened in Silent Hill a long time ago, and ever since the town has served as sort of an amplifier for the fears, sins, and weaknesses of people who wander into town. The games serve as sort of an anthology of mostly unrelated stories with only the town in common. As video games go, the Silent Hill games are especially notable for eschewing a lot of the campiness found in horror video games in favor of palpable dread and genuinely creepy, unsettling imagery. As a series, the games owe a lot to modern horror film, especially Jacob's Ladder. The second game - dealing with a man who receives a letter from his long-dead wife to meet him in Silent Hill - is a story of long-buried guilt and despair, played out in grainy images of decaying buildings, damned things writhing and vomiting in straitjackets of their own skin, with a soundtrack of industrial thumps and clanks and radio interference. It's easily one of the scariest games ever made. If you're going to adapt a horror game for the big screen and not make it a lurid, overheated mess, this is the series to use.

On the other hand, attempts by fans to make sense of the story behind the games yield accounts contorted and confusing enough to be right at home halfway through the Saw series. The story of the first game, for example, is thoroughly confusing at best, a case of too many elements crammed into one place, each demanding explanation and connection to the others. To wit, from a fan plot analysis hosted at…

"Cheryl never really existed. In fact, neither did Alessa. Both of the girls are only conjurations of Dahlia's cult. See, the cult wanted to bring their lord Samael to the mortal world, so that he could take control of the universe. But for the cult to benefit they would have to be able to control Samael. The only way to do this was to summon Samael into an unborn fetus, a child that the cult could raise and teach to control its powers, all for the benefit of the cult, of course. Dahlia conceived the child somehow, with the help of Dr. Kaufmann. But when the child was born, only half of Samael's Dark Soul had been summoned into the child."

Or, from the Wikipedia entry for the second game…

"At this point in the game, the letter from Mary vanishes entirely from the envelope. In another room, a final meeting with Angela sees her giving up on life and unable to cope with her guilt any longer. She walks into the flames of a burning staircase and is not seen again. Two Pyramid Heads appear, along with Maria, who has been resurrected once more; as she is killed again, James realizes that Pyramid Head was created because he needed someone to punish him. The envelope from Mary finally disappears and both Pyramid Heads impale themselves with their own spears. James makes his way to the rooftop, finally reaching what seems to be Mary. Depending on the choices made by the player throughout the game, this may be either Mary or Maria disguised as her."

So we're already starting off with a pretty gnarled set of ideas, images, and storylines. What works in a game, based on accrual of experience over hours of gameplay and multiple possible courses of action, is going to need to be pared down and streamlined to make an effective movie. Just like the removal of one singing gnome from the Ring trilogy (or, for that matter, not telling the entire battle at Helm's Deep as an incidental flashback), a good adaptation is going to pick and choose from the source material to tell the best story in that world.

And here's where fandom becomes a problem. Everyone takes something different from the game, everyone's experiences are a little bit different, and each and every devoted adherent of the series has their own ideas about what absolutely must be in the movie for it to be good, or for it to be a "real" Silent Hill film. Fans of the series are vocal, and are potential moviegoers. They're going to generate the buzz needed to get more than fans of the game into the theaters. As the director himself said in a production diary, "I know a few fans who have seen the film and I have listened carefully to their comments. I think overall we have been very respectful and that fans will not be disappointed. Silent Hill fans want a movie that they can respect…If the film is successful in the eyes of the fans then I will be happy to make a sequel. If the fans aren't happy with my adaptation then it will be difficult for me to tackle a second one."

So already we have, in addition to the studio underwriting the movie, a fanbase with their own set of demands. And who are these fans to whom the filmmakers are being respectful? Some excerpts from various and sundry discussion forums…

"I need to know the plot of the film before I generate any excitement over it. If the final product is just another film adaptation of a video game then I will probably be disappointed with it regardless of how much time and effort is poured into it. I don't know why individuals feel the need to alter the storyline in a video game in order to bring it to the silver screen but I see this kind of @#$% all of the time."
"what was up with the movie, curect me if i'm wrong but the Rose Da Silva did not have a gun to protect herself from monsters she was just running around looking for her daughter i thought that part was lame."
"I wish they'd just make SH movies actually based on the games already. I came to like the SH movie after awhile- it grew on me. But when I first saw it I was so annoyed how they turned the Order into these pathetic witch burning Christian people. And of course made Harry a woman... anyway, you know who'd make a good Walter? Triple H, the wrestler."
"The entire time me & my closest friend kept shouting out the names to songs. We're both giddy little fangirls. I'm SO glad they kept the music."
"Ugh. So why haven’t I given the movie a worthless rating? Mainly because Pyramid Head was just that cool (even though his total screen time probably hovers around 4 minutes)"
"completely ignore the first film’s existence and make a film perfectly based off of silent hill 2 or silent hill 1. most likely silent hill 2 since the first silent hill movie’s story is the retarded bastardization of the first game’s story."
"I don`t wanna see dozens of people running around in Silent Hill! It`s an empty and abandoned town with just a few characters who hold "darkness in their hearts" (the second SH game). Stop to turn the cult into an ultra-stupid sect who burn witches. That`s not what Silent Hill is about!"

No matter what the filmmakers do or don't do, no matter who they include or omit, somebody is going to be vocally unhappy and insist that the filmmakers' failure to accommodate their idea of what Silent Hill "really is" means that the entire undertaking is bankrupt.

Unfortunately, in this instance, the need to balance the desire to make a scary movie against commercial considerations against fan opinion meant that what could have been a really good, unsettling horror movie with its own vision and aesthetic turned out as a disjointed series of scenes into which entirely too much source mythology got crammed. There's just enough good in the movie to make you wish for what could have been. 

Silent Hill (the movie) is the story of the Da Silva family - Rose, Christopher, and their adopted daughter Sharon. Rose and Christopher are worried because Sharon sleepwalks constantly, putting herself in danger on a regular basis. Christopher thinks she needs medicine, Rose wonders why she keeps screaming something about "Silent Hill" during her episodes. Silent Hill is a former coal mining town, evacuated due to a massive underground coal fire akin to an Appalachian Chernobyl. The ruins of the town have been fenced off and nobody goes there anymore. After an argument over Sharon's condition, Rose takes Sharon, gets into the car, and heads for the smoking remains of Silent Hill. Rose has trouble getting directions - all of the locals insist that nobody goes there and nobody should. It is a shunned place. Rose insists, with the dogged persistence of the mother trying to save her daughter's life, and pushes forward. A late night accident  overturns Rose's car on the outskirts of the town, and she blacks out on the steering wheel. When she recovers, Sharon isn't in the car.

Faced with no other choice, Rose follows her daughter into the town of Silent Hill.

Silent Hill is the picture of a ghost town - empty buildings standing just as they had a decade ago, wrecked cars, litter in the streets. The entire town is blanketed by a thick gray fog and a gentle but constant rain of ash from the fires below. It is dead quiet and completely deserted. It is a bleak place, but initially, nothing seems out of the ordinary (as abandoned towns go). But after enough time spent wandering the town, Silent Hill begins giving up its secrets - the fog rolls away to reveal streets and buildings, entire city blocks, sheared away into emptiness. The neighborhood church is not topped with a Christian cross. Air raid sirens announce the coming of night, of a darkness in which the town peels away to reveal a smoldering industrial hellscape underneath. A darkness in which monsters walk the town.

Silent Hill has many weaknesses, but its audiovisual aesthetic is not among them. The sound of the movie is dominated by hums, distant crashes, bursts of noise. What music there is is repurposed from the game - it's menacing, but in ways not usually used in Western horror films. When was the last time a mandolin sounded so creepy? Visually it's of a piece - this is, at its heart, the story of a little girl who was nearly burned alive and lingered too long, and in her lingering poisoned the town. This town is her waking nightmare, and imagery of fire and ash dominates. The world blackens as night falls, with streets and buildings and walls floating up and away like burning paper caught in an updraft. The creatures of this nightmare world are malformed, as if half-melted or made from burn tissue. They writhe and stutter step, in agony themselves, and when some of them stretch and flex to scream, burning embers are revealed in their cracks and crevices. This is not carelessly chosen imagery - though it might appear to suffer at first from Abandoned Hospital Syndrome, everything we see is an echo of the events that lead to the town as it is now. The recounting of the events are told through scratched and grainy film stock, a home movie of damnation and horror. It's not quite like anything else I've seen. 

Unfortunately, atmosphere and visuals alone don't get it done this time. The dialogue is not good, even for stock b-movie dialogue. It's awkward enough to bring you out of the movie on more than one occasion. Characters taken directly from the game fail as often as they succeed - there is a police officer whose uniform looks more like a fetish outfit than an actual uniform in faithfulness to her original design - and the backstory is entirely too complex. There's a cult that doesn't need to be there, there's a demon whose role is only clear at the end, if then, it appears as though there are multiple parallel realities, and although some monsters are directly connected to the central events of the story, others aren't, and appear to be there because they are popular characters in the game, rather than because they serve the internal logic of the film.

The biggest pitfall with any adaptation is the temptation to put elements from the original property into the adaptation not because they contribute to the story, but because they "have" to be there, lest a community with some acquired sense of ownership scream for a boycott. The Silent Hill games are a rich source of ideas for horror film, but insistence on adhering to some sense of canon in a series of games lacking in internal consistency or narrative throughput means that what we get are not ideas but gestures and references, isolated setpieces intended to evoke the game's experience, rather than contributing to a good, solid story. Profit can take one good movie and bleed its premise dry, throwing away the husk until it grows back enough for a "reboot", but fandom can take one good premise and, like children fighting over a favorite toy, pull it into multiple pieces. What could have been lies on the floor, leaking stuffing while the children who pulled it apart continue their eternal argument over to whom it really belonged. 


  1. Excellent article, with a further application than to just horror movies. Anywhere where fandom demands rule, the result is not challenging art but safe affirmations of what has come before.

    The thing with the Silent Hill games was that they didn't make sense, necessarily. I do not know if what is now considered canon by fanboys is or was at the time officially endorsed by the Japanese creators of these videogames, but I doubt when they made Silent Hill 1 they had any 'evil cult' solution to the awfulness of that town, and it's disappointing if now that is the canon.

    The problem is that, although the first couple of Silent Hill games are profoundly creepy (I even had nightmares with imagery from 2), without any concrete story, what they use to hit their beats are repurposed western-cinema tropes. Silent Hill is a Japanese reimagining of the American resort town, the characters are western stereotypes and so on. This makes it extremely difficult to make a western film about art that is western tropes recycled through the Japanese mentality.

    If you try to 'fix it', you upset the fans that WANT it to feel like western recycled tropes made by Japanese.

    Solution: don't make the movie. The videogame works in spite of various problems due to implicating the player through interactivity. It doesn't stand as a piece of art on strictly narrative merit.

  2. Long-time reader, first-time commenter-

    I am so glad you chose to discuss this film. Despite it's weaknesses I rather enjoy it. When i played videogames, I also enjoyed the Silent Hill games. I would not call myself a 'fan,' of either. The film in particular fascinates me.

    Personally, I'm going to go ahead and say that Silent Hill is my favorite work of adaptation, period. Why?

    Because, somehow, they took everything that I thought worked in the games in terms of the WAY it induced fear and preserved that. You mentioned the music, imagery, etc--all of that is valid. Silent Hill the movie is the only
    'big american' film that struck the Argento buttons in me until I saw Black Swan (the two are very similar, actually).

    I read the games as works of art more akin to poetry than narrative prose--the montage of juxtaposed images and effects creates a mood that then frightens, but doesn't try too hard to frighten in and of itself. The film worked the same way for me. When it attempted to become openly threatening it fell, but it did, for LONG stretches create that atmosphere of dread.

    I think the end--much like the convoluted plot in the games--is part of that. It doesn't tie thing sup in a neat bow, quite the opposite, which makes it more unsettling; the ending is like the 'existential horror film' you blogged about earlier. It also sort of brings in this very protestant ethics meets rape narrative aspect to the world of the film: they do 'fix' Silent Hill, and go back home but... it never truly leaves. They can't ever really leave Silent Hill.

    but what do you think?