Collins’ Crypt: SILENT HILL Perfected The “Video Game Movie”

Christophe Gens' film gave BC all the highs and lows of a modern gaming experience, hands-free!

Considering my "ever since childhood" affection for horror movies, it shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that genre games have made up a big part of my experience with that medium as well. My NES (certainly the highlight of Christmas '88) came bundled with Super Mario and Duck Hunt of course, but it was the separately purchased (thanks, "Santa"!) Ghost 'n Goblins that ate up most of that hour or so I was allowed to play it every day. I bought a PS1 for the sole purpose of playing Resident Evil, and Code Veronica was in turn one of the first games I got for PS2, but playing a few seconds of Dead Rising convinced me to switch sides and get an Xbox 360 in the fall of 2006. Even after my kid was born and my gaming time was reduced to almost nothing, I kept up my habit - I probably wouldn't have a PS4 standing next to my rarely used Xbox One if not for Bloodborne and Until Dawn being Sony exclusive titles.

And yet, despite that 30+ year history of playing horror games, I have a huge blind spot: the Silent Hill series. It's mostly bad timing more than anything; the first game came out when I was in college and not gaming all that much, and by the time I got back into it they were already on the 3rd or 4th entry. But since I have a "thing" about playing game series out of order if there's even the slightest bit of continuity or mythology (so, I can skip around in the Final Fantasy series with minimal nagging on my soul, but I can't play Dead Rising 4 yet because I haven't finished DR2), and the first game was already expensive via 3rd party resellers, I just focused on the Resident Evils and other standalone horror games like Alan Wake and Heavy Rain when I had the itch to get scared while holding a controller. 

I just wanted to make that clear before I say that 2006's Silent Hill feature (out on special edition Blu-ray today from Scream Factory) might be the most successful "video game to movie" experience ever. Yes, I know it changed some things from the games (it used the first two for most of its influences, with nods to the 3rd and 4th installments), and it's not even in the top ten highest grossing of such films, but I'm not talking about "successful" in those terms. If the film was a failure to you because they changed a man named Harry into a woman named Rose, that's your cross to bear. No, I mean simply watching the film feels a lot like the act of playing a video game, at least my experience with them in general. Whether this was their actual intention or not I do not know, but even the film's flaws (erratic doling out of information, overlength) are more or less the same ones I could levy at the campaign of many games I have played, something I find quite amusing and, in turn, enough to consider myself a fan of it even though I spend chunks of it frustrated.

My favorite time with a game is when I first start it, usually. I like being introduced to the world and its characters, learning the ropes, and (since I am not particularly great at it in most games) the relative ease of combat before the odds get stacked against you. Similarly, I like the first act of the Silent Hill movie the most; knowing nothing about the world due to my unfamiliarity with the games, I was intrigued by the strange town and how it appeared to be closed off from the rest of the country, and wanted to learn about its mysteries. Radha Mitchell's Rose isn't the most exciting character ever committed to screen, but her plight - trying to find her missing adopted daughter as well as find out why the girl has been behaving so strangely - is easy enough to sympathize with and make me want to go on that journey with her. 

The movie also seems to start with a scene or two missing, which reminded me of all the games I have played where I was apparently expected to watch a pre-menu cutscene that I accidentally skipped because I was trying to press X to hammer my way through the logos, only to inadvertently discover it later on (usually by being distracted and forgetting to hammer X). The film kicks off with Rose and her husband Chris (Sean Bean) looking for their daughter Sharon in their backyard in the middle of the night, but you need context clues (i.e. her teddy bear) to know it's a child and not a dog or a senile parent, as we haven't even seen the girl yet, let alone the circumstances that led to her disappearing. They find her quickly enough, and then the film slows down a bit to fill in some of the information - the credits aren't actually there (they're saved for the end of this film) but you can easily make a connection to these following scenes and the usual exposition a game might offer (with minimal player action) as it rolls out its own opening titles - think Arkham Asylum's endless "walk The Joker to his cell" sequence, for example.

The similarities only get more apparent when Rose gets to Silent Hill and loses Sharon again (for fellow non-players that haven't read the plotlines of the games, this is more or less how the first game starts), as what follows involves a lot of running and confusion. People approach her and she's not sure if they're on her side or not, she's disoriented as she's not yet familiar with the layout of the town, and she has nothing to use to defend herself, so her best bet is to run, and run a lot, until she finds her footing and starts being more proactive. That's my experience with a lot of games; most recently I started playing Conan Exiles, a game with no tutorial of any sort that leaves you to figure things out on your own. When the game began I walked around for a while, unsure if I was heading toward a safer area or one that would get me killed, I picked up a stick thinking I could use it as a weapon until I found something better, and when I saw another person I thought he might be an NPC that could help me until he started beating me to death. So I ran a lot in those early hours, slowly picking things up and getting a general idea of the layout until I was comfortable enough to start fighting back. 

Unfortunately, the film also mirrors a number of my own gaming adventures in that I occasionally reach a point where I start feeling it's repetitive, and I struggle to finish it not from difficulty but from sheer numbness, having seen all it had to offer. There's a point in the film, around the halfway mark, where we seemingly start seeing more flashbacks than things happening in the now, accompanied by lengthy bouts of exposition from its supporting cast (including Kim Coates as the film's only other male character of note besides Bean), and I find it hard to concentrate on all of its reveals and implications, especially when after they finally stop talking it's back to the same kind of run and hide kind of scenes we've already witnessed a half dozen times by then. Because of my limited game time, I can't finish a story campaign in short order - it usually spans a few months (in Mass Effect: Andromeda's case, it took almost a year), and depending on how convoluted the story is (cough, Final Fantasy XIII, cough) I often have trouble remembering who's who, what the stakes are, etc. 

Same thing here. I know who the bad guys are and that the goal is for Rose to find her daughter and escape the town, but the heaps of exposition leave me scratching my head as to why they're in this situation to begin with, and what exactly they need to do in order to leave. When the villains immolate a major character, I couldn't begin to tell you why they're doing it beyond general "sacrifice" purposes, but as with some games, at that point I was just happy the ending was near and I could move on to something else. Maybe not in the time that the first couple games were made (I've read that they last about eight hours), but one thing that has certainly been an issue with modern games is that the developers force you into a lot of backtracking and overlong missions for no reason than to sell gamers on the excess of things to do and how long it'll take to play it. "100+ hours of gameplay!" they tout, without noting that 90 of them find you doing the same things over and over, or traversing the same areas without ever seeing/doing anything new to keep you engaged. I'd rather play a 10 hour game that kept me riveted than a 40 hour one where I spent half the time on busywork.

Again, I don't know if any of this is intentional. I know director Christophe Gens was a huge fan of the game and even had it connected to a monitor on set so that they could match camera angles and things like that, so it's possible he was hoping to let moviegoers experience the same kinds of thrills that games provide, as opposed to just trying to make a traditional movie that happened to be based on an interactive process for another medium. But if so, I doubt he was hoping to recreate some of the negative aspects of the experience as well, even if I ultimately find it amusing that I get the good with the bad. The video game turned movie sub-genre is not exactly a goldmine of great films, and on content alone Silent Hill is often considered one of the better ones, but it might be my favorite not because of its story or anything - but because it gives me that same love-hate experience in a fraction of the time. (Bonus: it's a gorgeous film to look at and I was very happy to upgrade it from DVD!)