Thursday, April 19, 2012

How I Would Have Done It: Silent Hill

(What I try to do in my How I Would Have Done It posts is examine a movie that I think didn't live up to its potential and, well, talk about how I would have done it if I'd been the writer or director. Mostly because just leaving it at "that was dumb" or "that sucked" is kind of unsatisfying, especially when there was something really good buried in there somewhere. I'll be discussing story elements in detail, so all kinds of spoilers await.)

Man, Silent Hill frustrates the hell out of me. I want to like it much more than I do. It's atmospheric, it's got a striking visual palette and an interesting aesthetic, and it's a nice twist on the idea of the cursed or shunned town. But it's messy, incoherent. There's a lot going on, mostly due to the baggage it's carrying as the adaptation of a popular video game franchise. There's too much shit in the movie because everyone has their own ideas about what "needs" to be in a movie about Silent Hill. But I've already gone on and on about that. There's a damn good movie here, it just needs some trimming back, some simplifying, some streamlining.
As it stands, Silent Hill is the story of a couple - Christopher and Rose - and their daughter Sharon. Sharon suffers from frequent and dangerous episodes of sleepwalking, episodes in which she cries out something about "Silent Hill." The only Silent Hill they know about is a deserted mining town, evacuated after an accident caused a massive underground coal fire, one which still burns today. 

(This is a real thing, and I think it's one of the best ideas in the movie. As cursed towns go, it's hard to find a better one than a ghost town sitting empty in a perpetual rain of ash and poisonous fumes.)

Over Christopher's objections, Rose decides to take Sharon to Silent Hill. Just outside of town, they have a car accident, like you do, and by the time Rose regains consciousness, Sharon is nowhere to be found, so it's into the town she goes, into the gray fog and ruined buildings of Silent Hill.

What Rose (and an errant motorcycle cop) discover is that Silent Hill isn't deserted. The inhabitants of the town are still there, ragged and terrified, huddled in the town church for safety. They wait for the darkness to come, heralded by the sound of sirens. When the darkness comes, the face of the town burns away, revealing a charred industrial hellscape underneath, an endless labyrinth of barbed wire and rusted steel. In this place, there are monsters.

Okay, so far so good. Why is the town like this? Because the town was once home to a cult, and this cult had a thing for sacrifice by fire. They sacrificed at little girl, and that little girl cursed the town, turning it into the cursed place it is today. Okay, still good. But how does Sharon fit into this? Why is she so drawn to the town? Well, see, she's sort of half of the little girl's soul, and she's also kind of the twin of a demon, who is also part of the little girl and maybe the cult summoned her and so Sharon and the little girl and the demon are sort of going to fuse into one thing and that might also be a demon or Sharon is supposed to make the girl whole again, or maybe the demon is going to do that instead and so both the girl and the demon are fighting for control of Sharon, I think. 

And yeah, that's kind of where shit starts to fall apart.

The story of the original video game forms the backbone of most of this movie, and it was a pretty messy affair to start. The game gets over on pure creepy, so if the story doesn't make sense at the end of the day, that's okay. What works in one medium doesn't in another, though, and the movie's kind of a mess, and that's before extra characters start getting grafted on because they're popular parts of the franchise. So something that didn't make a whole lot of sense makes even less sense now. The key here, then, is simplicity. 

It's The Town, Stupid

The real star of this movie is the town itself. To the casual observer, it's empty, abandoned in the middle of everyday life like Prypiat. That's creepy. To someone in the grip of the town's curse, that abandoned town is covered in a perpetual snow of ash, and whole roads drop away into crevasses of concrete and rock as if the town lies at the center of some cataclysm, which yeah it pretty much does. Then the sirens blare, darkness crawls like a disease, and brings with it the nightmare face of the town, its ugliest compulsions and worst stories laid bare. The characters of Rose and Sharon and her husband and the cops are not quite ciphers but close enough - they are the tiny figures there as contrast against the vast horror of the town. If anything, I'd simplify the distinctions a little - strip it down from three towns to two. Make Silent Hill the gray, blasted ghost town covered in a rain of ashes - something suitable to a horrible natural disaster. This landscape demands to be fenced off and roadblocked and guarded by police. There should be a sense of crossing over, taking your life into your own hands by entering this ruin of a town. In other words, the town as it exists in our world should be nightmarish, so when the darkness comes, we're sort of like "oh shit, it gets worse?"

In the games, a combination of the cult's demonic activities and a legacy of horrible shit happening in the town stretching back centuries (seriously, there's not a major institution in the town that hasn't been the site of something horrible, and it's supposed to be a RESORT TOWN) have turned it into sort of a dark mirror, inhabited by monsters whose forms reflect a person's worst nightmares and guiltiest memories and darkest secrets. So the town is different for each person who enters it. That makes it one of the few settings that could support non-sucky sequels, since each could be a story about a different person's nightmare, but it does sort of take away from the strong central conceit of this movie, so that's not on.

It All Starts With The Girl

Not Sharon - like I said, she's the rabbit who leads Alice into Wonderland. No, it all starts with Alessa - the little girl who burned. You don't need the cult, you don't need any demons, you just need her. At its heart, Silent Hill works best as the story of a little girl who burned almost to death, but not quite far enough, and who took too long to die, and in her lingering poisoned the town. That's really all you need. The movie works best as Rose's eventual discovery of Silent Hill's cracked, rotten, smoldering heart - a hospital room, where an abomination lies, all charred flesh and virulent rage, tended to for all eternity by a nurse, eyes ruined and bleeding from what she has seen.

It's much more concise this way, there's a clear sense of progression from odd to weird to bad to scary to ohshitohshitohshit, and you can just keep ratcheting it up and up before you get to the ugly-secret reveal. It makes much more sense in terms of the imagery in the movie as well. Silent Hill in this film is based on Centralia, PA, a town situated on top of a raging underground inferno. When the darkness comes, the world as it appears to be flakes and peels away like burning paper caught in a thermal updraft. Most of the monsters are writhing masses of scarred, twisted skin that looks a whole lot like burn tissue. When some of them scream, their skin cracks, revealing a volcanic glow underneath.

It makes sense that the entire town could be haunted by one little girl's waking nightmare. It's parsimonious, it's easy enough to connect the dots without wondering how a couple of other antagonists do or don't play in. The more you need a scorecard to keep up, the less scary it's going to be. Things that seem bizarre on initial encounter make sense in light of new information, and we get to experience the terror of discovery and understanding as a result. (This is something I think is problematic for scary movies - there's a difference between throwing several different scary things at an audience, and finding several different ways to scare an audience with the same thing. The first risks being sloppy and confusing, the second delivers more bang for the buck.)

A Journey Into The Heart Of Darkness

The need to cram in characters from the game series also means a lot of unnecessary detours for Rose. Oh, hey, she needs to meet the motorcycle cop! She needs to meet Alessa's mother! She needs to meet the head of the cult! Why? Because they're in the game! She has to visit this location and that location so fans of the game can see that we remembered to put those locations in like they were expecting! This distracts from the story and our ability to follow what's going on. On the other hand, the game provides the movie with a very useful framing device - if this is a story about how a young girl is haunting a town, that story is told through Rose's progression through the town itself.

She starts off on the outskirts, which are sort of rural and creepy-looking in the way that rural areas are at night. So we're off to a spooky start, but nothing too bizarre. Then she has to navigate the streets of a town made impenetrably gray by all of the ash falling from the sky. Creepy and nightmarish, but there's a rationale for it. But there's no direct route to Sharon - she glimpses her from far away, but fences and locked door and unexplainable chasms block her way. So now the town's exterior is not enough - she has to delve into the town's interior - schools, churches, and homes. Here is where the ugliness of the town begins to reveal itself. As the darkness crawls through the town, every ugly secret is laid bare. People who had ill intent in life are punished forever, bound up in barbed wire, parodies of life formed from scar tissue roam the streets, faceless nurses, unseeing, freeze in tableaus until the light hits them and they hiss and screech. Rose moves further and further into the center of the town, close to the heart of its corruption, until she reaches the abandoned, ruined hospital and her descent becomes literal, a long trip down an elevator shaft to a forgotten basement where Alessa waits.

We progress along with Rose. As she discovers the horrors of the town, so do we. Moving through unknown spaces is spooky enough - you never know what's going to be behind the next door or down that darkened hallway, and we feel it as Rose does. Ultimately, it's just Rose agains the town, her tiny figure a speck against its brick walls and vast, indifferent sky.  That's easy enough to understand - no subterfuge, no conspiracies, just one mom walking alone into the unknown to rescue her daughter. It's sort of like Red Riding Hood if the wolf were the entire forest.

There's a lot going for this movie - it doesn't look like most ghost stories, it's a vivid take on the town-with-a-terrible-secret story, and if you subtract the cult and demonic possession stuff, it's more aesthetically and thematically coherent than most horror movies. But any time you start thinking in terms of what you're obligated to do instead of what's going to work in a movie, you risk making something nobody's really going to like.

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