Is the First Silent Hill Movie Actually... Great?

Silent Hill (2006) was not the first videogame adaptation that ever made it to the screen, but it's arguably the best one. Starring Sean Bean (who, strangely, survives,) Jodell Ferland, Radha Mitchell, and Laurie Holden, Silent Hill follows Rose as she tries to find her daughter Sharon in Silent Hill, a ghost town founded by extremist witch hunters, while Chris (Sean Bean) tries to find them. Unfortunately for the young family, Rose and Sharon have slipped into a parallel dimension, and the reunion won't be possible.

Christopher Gans, the director, was a huge fan of the video game, and he knew from the moment he played it for the first time that he wanted to adapt it to the big screen, developing the geography and mythology of the town and focusing on what he thought was a profoundly feminine, matriarchal story. While some fans complained that Harry, the main character in the game, had been replaced by a woman, they don't know the extent of Gans' intentions: most of the men were included in the movie at the request of the studio, who thought the casting was unbalanced.

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This shoehorned inclusion (although in Gans' defense, he tries to create parallels and mirrors of the men in the real world and the women trapped in the allegorical one, with the police officers Thomas Gucci and Cybil Bennett being the most successful one) is what renders Sean Bean's scenes redundant and over-explanatory. Other than his distress over losing his wife and daughter and the actor's charisma, he doesn't bring anything to the story.

"(By changing the protagonist's gender) Suddenly it became a film about sorority, maternity, immaculate conception, witches... Actually, Silent Hill is a matriarchy," said Gans.

And he did a fantastic job at replacing classic Christian imagery with feminine symbols – Rose, who is associated with the Virgin Mary, changes from drab browns to rich reds by the end of the movie, Jesus in the Cross is replaced by Alessa in her barbed hospital bed, and even the Silent Hill's cross signet rises from a half-moon sea, a double feminine symbol.

When Dark Alessa enters Rose's body, it sounds, looks and feels like a Holy Spirit impregnation, only with both parties clearly conscious of what they were doing and oh, God is a woman. The virgin-mother-crone trinity appears three times in the movie, and just in case the anvil wasn’t heavy enough, the role of the lone Silent Hill survivor is to protect the nuns and girls of the local orphanage from the horrors of the past.

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The topic of women reaching out to each other, regardless of their traditional alignment, is also explored - Dark Alessa relies on the good nuns from the real world to take care of her innocent form, Cybil and Rose's fire-forged friendship could be its own movie, and Dahlia's desperate attempt to repair the errors of the past by protecting little Sharon is absolutely heartbreaking. Men who help women are portrayed in an unequivocally good light, and women who turn against their own kind for the approval of a congregation suffer in the end. A good counterpoint would be Suspiria, which deals with similar themes.

Just in case Gans was being too subtle for some of the audience (and he considers that his audience, particularly if they loved Silent Hill as much as he did, is extremely intelligent and very demanding) the leitmotif "A Mother is God in the eyes of her child," should make this point clear. Cybil, right before dying, calls for her Mama -- not for an indifferent male God. And at the end of the movie, Sharon/Alessa and Rose's idea of paradise is a peaceful home where they can spend an eternity together as mother and daughter.

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A more subtle current of the movie (almost buried under the blinding whiteness of the cast) is the acceptance of the other and the unknown. For Silent Hill's cult, Alessa's transgression was her mutt, bastard status, and they were unable to accept her as an equal soul, they considered her a taint. There is a transitional scene where we see the love and care that the orphanage nun dispenses on her charges, all of them from unknown origins, and how much it pains her and the police officer that Christopher might find "a taint" in the orphan they adopted; their point of leaving the past alone seems a trope at first, but it's actually a key aspect of inclusion and acceptance between real humans.

Gans described Silent Hill as a Piranelli-esque hell, where dimensions crossed at certain points, "Silent Hill isn't a town of buildings and solid walls. It's more like flesh. And when it shifts dimensions, it's like being skinned." he said. "We treated all the scenery in the film like a sick body, afflicted with cancer, into which a scalpel can slice: Red Pyramid's swords. We know that we're in Alessa's mind, and she's taking revenge on this world, on this city, by inflicting on the scenery what was inflicted on her body."

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The visual effects that mark the transition between the permafoggy town and the burning hell born from Alessa's suffering include reddening glass, dark ashy paint floating away and, in the case of Colin the Rapist Janitor, creeping red veins whenever he touches. This imagery was so good that Konami used it in the next Silent Hill installment, but besides being an architectonical reminder of Alessa's burning flesh, the cyclical nature of this dimension shift, the crimson peeling of wall tissue and the religious taboos surrounding it (particularly at the end of the movie) also brings to mind menstruation, which was the inciting incident in another classic horror masterpiece about mother-daughter relationships: Stephen King's Carrie.

The other monsters that Rose and Cybil encounter are also born from Alessa's trauma. Barbed, infectious Colin raped her in the bathroom, and she condemned him to crawl on his genitals for all eternity. The children that bullied her will forever burn red-black, unable to find solace in their mothers, and the nurses that took care of her, kind but curious, are multiplied and manipulated into woman-sized puppets wielding sharp instruments; they represent the pain of her chronic condition, and probably the natural jealousy that their adult shape, compassion, and healing power provoke in Alessa: three things that she will never be able to attain.

Pyramid Head's role, from this perspective, seems way more benign: his actions as Alessa's guardian and protector put him in the role of her mystery father, which was the reason why Silent Hill's residents tagged her as impure. The phallic violence that accompanied Pyramid Head in the videogame is still in the movie, but in this context, he's a paternal projection batting for his little girl -- and in a twisted way, filling in the role that Christopher, as Sean Bean, couldn't fill for Rose and Sharon.

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Most of Silent Hill's effects are practical, including the nurses and the limbless lump that attacks Rose on the streets. Gantz hired professional dancers and constantly showed them and his crew the videogame to choreograph their movements, which he sometimes reversed in editing (a similar technique to the one used in Samara/Sadako's well scenes in The Ring.) Akira Yamaoka, the composer of Silent Hill's 1999 videogame, joined the production and created a fantastically eerie soundtrack with moods to match every dimension.

Let's talk about Jodelle Ferland for a moment, the multifaceted young actress that portrays Alessa, Sharon and The Other. Gans cast her after seeing her call tapes for Terry Gilliam's Tideland, where she stuck three dolls' heads on her fingertips and carried out a three-way conversation with three different voices. "Well, if I needed a 10-year-old actress to portray a schizophrenic character, I found her," said Gans. She is, along with Alice Krige, who plays fervent matriarch Christabella, an absolute scene-stealer, seamlessly navigating the sweet innocence of childhood and the terrifying sense of justice that kids have.

Finally, an interesting piece of trivia where reality imitates fiction: the building that stands in for the orphanage and school scenes was Alma College, a historical all-girls school in St. Thomas, Ontario... that burned to a crisp only two years after Silent Hill premiered. Although 2009's Orphan (another iteration of the adoption-complex children-maternity horror story) used images from the fire, Silent Hill is the last time that the school's abandoned corridors appear on-screen.

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