When it comes to computer games, I’m a member of an odd and seemingly very small age cohort – too young to remember Pac-Man, old enough to know where World Of Warcraft stole its ideas from. I grew up playing on computers, but I’m old enough to never have entirely accepted such play as a significant cultural property. In fact I don’t think I’ve played a new one since Quake. And that, in turn, is probably largely responsible for my position on the pulp literature that’s sprung up around the games – sympathetic enough to see the point of Alien Versus Predator, critical enough to know that there has never to date been a properly good movie based on a computer game.
It was in that spirit that I bought my ticket for Silent Hill, which is based on a game I’ve not heard of. One guy I know says it’s “cool”. His girlfriend says it’s “just awful”. In any the case, the adaptation doesn’t feel like a video-game movie at all to start with. It felt more like an M. Night Shyamalan movie; a couple are having trouble with their adopted daughter, who’s sleepwalking and drawing scary pictures. So after Googling her mumblings, the mum finds out it’s the name of the town where the kid was born and takes her there. Sensible enough.
It turns out that Silent Hill is a ghost town evacuated after the coal seam under it caught fire (a fate presumably copied from that of the real-life Pennsylvania mining town Centralia). The place is abandoned and there’s this constant rain of ash. As they’re exploring the daughter disappears. Then the zombies show up. There follows a considerable amount of roaring and shrieking before Mum and her incongruous policewoman sidekick discover the townspeople. Then things really turn to custard.
I don’t mean things get worse for the characters – except for Dad, Sean Bean, charging around outside town in an entirely superfluous parallel narrative. But this is where things stop making sense. The inhabitants of Silent Hill are god-fearing, witch-hunting ingrates intent on roasting passerby over a fire in the church. That’s fine, but what does that have to do with the first bit? These guys have rigged up a siren to warn themselves of the wedge-headed, cleaver-wielding ogre who seems to be leading the zombies, but that’s where any connection seems to end. For much of the rest of the movie we’re batted at random between three sets of villains – zombies, god-botherers and the standard horror-movie-issue creepy little girl – not quite interested enough to wonder exactly how they fit together.
I like to think I have some patience for inane nonsense. I subscribe to livejournal.com. I eventually worked out that Deep Space Nine was a soap opera in space. I’ve marked undergraduate university essays. But I didn’t have the patience to keep track of Silent Hill's inordinately silly supernatural conspiracy. The belated explanation offers some ill-defined twaddle about a definitive historical atrocity, but nothing about the zombies, parallel dimensions or mewling anthropomorphic cockroaches. Computer games have come a long way in the last decade in some departments, but not plot. Exactly this problem – the plot of a game not sustaining its visual conceits on the big screen – sank Super Mario Brothers, arguably the first ever video-game movie. It’s not a problem unique to the genre, I appreciate, but it is characteristic of them, and Silent Hill is an example. It amounts to a heap of random, disjoined, re-write-esque gimcrackery sillier than any I’ve seen since Gladiator. In time even the writers give up and send us back to the church for a blood-soaked climax based on exposure of what little of the conspiracy they seem to understand themselves.
As a supporting character wades through ankle-deep human offal spitting curses at the witch-hunters, however, certain coherencies about this movie do begin to become apparent. The long history of abuse doings is, of course, a gothic trope, and forgiving the fact that Silent Hill’s isn’t remotely credible, it certainly has one. And depicting small-town hicks as foolish, tradition-bound loonies is a touchstone of American tradition going back as far as “The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow”. What’s interesting is that the ultimate villain here, the one the writers want dead, is the fire-and-brimstone Christian ringleader. Perhaps this is a reflection of current societal hang-ups – perhaps her bloodthirsty diatribes are what agnostic Californian scriptwriters think of when George Bush dares to use the term ‘prayer’ in public discourse. Perhaps Americans just need to get over the Salem witch trials. I don’t know. Just don’t tell me that a movie whose climax involves the destruction of a lay preacher in preference to a horde of zombies comes from a society ‘controlled’ by the Christian Right.
Silent Hill is the kind of drivel that makes one think fondly of the solidly-argued narrative integrity of Snakes On A Plane. It’s an abject reminder of the fact that the set-up for a piece of interactive fiction like a video game doesn’t necessarily stack up for something like a movie. You needn’t bother with it. And if the makers of this can’t decide what game to film next, I suggest Solitaire.