Friday, 16 November 2012

Horror Double (Part One) - Silent Hill: Revelation

Making Horror work, whether it be in a visual or written format, is a tricky and often mishandled task. The main obstacle Horror writers fundamentally have to get past, is finding the answer to a rather difficult question, “What frightens us?” Because, just like when a man is asked by his significant other if a particular pair of jeans gives the illusion of increased body mass, there is no correct answer.

As many different things are frightening to different people, it becomes difficult to make something that will work for everyone. Some people find clowns scary, some are disturbed by the idea of plot-convenient immortal serial killers; whilst for veteran BBC employees, the thought of police digging into their relationship with Jimmy Savile is true horror.

Without wishing to stereotype, I find that the younger audience tends to prefer the cheaper, instant gratification style of horror over the more subtlety disturbing, atmospheric approach heralded by the self-proclaimed horror film buffs. Of course, that’s by no means an utterly accurate statement, but rather something I’ve observed during many trips to the cinema for a variety of horror movies. The former style of horror is all the rage at the moment, which is hardly surprising considering it is the easiest way to get past the all important question from the first paragraph. 

So recently I went to see two horror flicks: Sinister and Silent Hill: Revelation. The former was a ‘new’ IP, whilst the latter is a sequel based upon a (surprisingly) decent video game adaptation.  I’m going to review both, and I’ll probably end up connecting back with the theme in my opening paragraph. Let’s begin with Silent Hill.

The Silent Hill series (from 1998 -2007) was a master class of subtle psychological and emotional horror, and explored such weighty concepts as punishment and redemption, whilst still scaring the player with grotesque monsters and implied horrors. It utilised every trick in the book, but still managed to be creative; it was thinking man’s horror draped in mainstream coat. Unfortunately, ever since leaving Japan the series has stagnated through homogenisation, and most instalments after SH4 failed to explore the darker nature of the human condition in favour of cheap scares.

There seems to be an annoying trend in horror, which follows that the more original a movie’s concept or monster is, the more susceptible it is to bastardisation.  This isn’t specific to just horror, but whilst in the action genre the worst it usually gets is Die Hard 5, in horror we have Freddy Kruger in rap videos and Jason Voorhees in space. I think it stems from the principal issue of how damn difficult it is to craft effective horror. The executives blinded by greed, see their new horror movie is drawing people in and are determined to recreate this success, with little thought as to what made it work in the first instance.

Sometimes this can be effective because it expands the scope of the film’s mythology, “Oh you thought you were safe because Jaws’ savage spree was limited to the ocean? Wait until you see Flying Jaws”. But quite often it will reach a point where the central concept of the film is diluted, or has gone through as many logical inconsistencies and retcons as The Bride of Wildenstein’s face. And this is bad storytelling, because when something frightens a human they cope by deconstructing it so it no longer applies to them; after you’ve read a ghost story and your mind begins to run wild whilst you try to sleep, you attempt to bring logic to the situation: “My house isn’t old enough to be haunted”, or, “I’m not fucking stupid enough to live on a house built on an ancient Indian burial ground”.  By changing it from a situation which COULD occur in everyday life, to one which could only happen if it followed a very specific chain of events, you take away the entire franchise’s power.

That seemingly labouring point finally brings me to Silent Hill: Revelation. I felt it was important to mention bastardisation, because the series finally has its own crowning moment of bastardisation, in the form the living personification of rape and sexual frustration engaging in a poorly choreographed sword duel with a Cenobite clone.  I can never go back to Silent Hill 2 and still be terrified of being stalked by the hulking, rapist now that I know he is just one cheesy moment away from joining Monster Brawl. That’s just one of several things wrong with Michael J. Bassett’s take on the Silent Hill universe.

The movie begins on a very strong note, plunging us straight into a nightmarish amusement park of non-Euclidean construct. Bizarre things wrapped up in plastic are hung on the stalls, and even the infamous Robbie the Rabbit makes an appearance; so far, so very Silent Hill.  Of course, this is the prerequisite dream sequence, which in turn is revealed to be part of another dream sequence: “Inception” as the whippersnapper behind me so rightly yelled, before I turned to twat him in the thorax. The references to the video games (particularly the third) are in abundance, and cleverly done so that fans of the games can appreciate them, whilst everyone else can simply carry on without feeling left out; because there’s nothing worse than that one person who brings their non-fan partner with them, and spends half the film explaining certain aspects.

Around ten minutes in the movie’s main problem becomes clear: having to explain away the sorta ambiguous, but still pretty closed ending of the first film. The first Silent Hill movie was mostly based on the first game in the SH series, and that game’s storyline was continued in SH3, so Michael J Bassett was left in the difficult position of cramming explanations and extended backstory into the early parts of the movie. This leaves us with characters spouting exposition and introducing endless plot devices, the latter of which will be meaningless to the uninitiated. 

The storyline is just fucking obtuse; regardless of whether you have or haven't played the video games it draws inspiration from. Sharon (from the first movie) has grown up and is now  known as Heather. She lives with her adoptive father Christopher Harry (Sean Bean), and becomes increasingly clear that they are living an itinerant lifestyle of sorts. Essentially, this boils down to them being on the run and putting off their inevitable fate of returning to Silent Hill; it also serves as a convenient way of getting the audience up to speed. The movie unfolded rather shakily, and I initially attributed that fact to the awkward ending of its predecessor, but as the movie progressed I was forced to accept that it was just badly written. The main antagonists of the film are another sect of the cult from the original, the very same cult who had done to them with barbed wire, things that can only be demonstrated in court , and on a Teddy Bear. They're more or less a rehash of the Big Bads from the previous film, only this time led by the poorly developed Claudia Wolf (Carrie-Anne Moss), who admittedly looks a little like Galadriel, as portrayed in a cheap porno version of Lord of the Rings

The thing is, their plan makes absolutely no sense. They need Heather to impregnate with a God fetus (it's Silent Hill, not the Care Bear Show), and she can only come back willingly; so they kidnap her father. Fair enough. But they don't kill him, they simply tie him up and taunt him. He doesn't even need to be alive for their plan to work, Heather just needs to think that he is, (Evil Movie Executive Edit: Our incredibly well written and amazingly subtle set-up, for the sequel wouldn't work if the character of the only actor not willing to jump this sinking ship was dead). Also, I'm not entirely sure why the cult sent The Missionary monster to kill random people and chase Heather around, because showcasing just how piss inducing Silent Hill is probably isn't the best way to convince her to return. And if the cult can send  highly efficient monsters into the real world, then why does Kit Harington's incredibly pointless, heart-throb character even Vincent exist?

Another of the film's problems which becomes incredibly obvious early on is the acting; the film has quite a decent cast for what it is, but it’s like they suddenly forgot how to act. I’ve seen many Sean Bean films so I know he can act, but here he is awful; though I’m assuming that he was rebelling for having to do THAT accent. Adelaide Clemens is the only convincing actor here, and when the girl from X-Men Origins outclasses Bean and Malcolm McDowell in their atypical roles (bland every-man and enjoyable head case, respectively), then you know something is wrong with the production. Carrie-Anne Moss and Deborah Kara Unger do a respectable job with what they have to work with, but really no one here does anything meaningful that couldn’t easily be replicated by teaching a pack of Furbies the script for SH3 and recording the results.

This, for many reasons, is scarier than Silent Hill: Revelation

When comparing Silent Hill and its sequel, the most glaring differences are in the atmosphere and aesthetics. Despite being panned by critics, Silent Hill was consistently praised for its well crafted world. Whilst it never managed to match up with masterpieces like Suspiria, it was a moody, dark film and had actual moments of dread. The cult had a depressingly real element to them, and poor Alessa's fate was distressing, watching her torture actually made me feel something. Several of the scenes gave the hairs on the back of your neck cause to stand up, scenes like: the nowhere version of the school's toilets, Rose's encounter with the nurses and the alleyway scene. In Revelation other than the brilliant evil theme park scene, the sets just aren't very imaginative and come across as rather generic. Sure, it does have a few somewhat memorable sequences and creatures. The mannequin abomination is interesting. The demon Leonard Wolf (McDowell) transforms into is interesting, so is Pyramid Head dismembering random mooks in the asylum. But not one of these creatures evoke any sense of bated-breath suspense, they’re simply here because the video game had monstrosities, and thus become another point to tick; with their screen time here being shorter than the working day on Jupiter.

Heather doesn’t actually spend a lot of time in Silent Hill, instead she has ‘episodes’, or visions, where she imagines a hellish landscape forming around her. It throws the pacing off somewhat, as the film tries to build up the characters and atmosphere whilst also throwing not-so subtle monsters at us. The mall scene is the apex of the movie’s lack of connectivity to Silent Hill’s mythology; instead of drawing from the series’ rich tradition of body horror and psychological motifs, Mr Bassett’s idea of disturbing imagery is party hat adorning zombie children, and obese cannibalistic butchers working in the kitchens, and this is neither effective or in the spirit of Silent Hill. The design of most of the beasts is vaguely humanoid with decent, but uninspired practical effects, whereas the CGI is quite lacking.  Also, Mr Bassett, an out of focus, wobbly camera does not make the scene appear hazy and disorientating, it just looks like you shot the scene across the road hidden in a bush.  

I understand that Revelation had a lot to live up to, given the former pedigree of the series and the fact Silent Hill is probably one of the better video game adaptations, but Michael J. Bassett played it safe and utterly failed. The scares feel light, and I can’t imagine anyone being frightened by anything in this movie. Honestly, there’s no suspense, no dread, and the only thing that will be keeping you awake at night is the thought of how much extra you had to pay for the rubbish 3D (there was no 2D option in my local). The scene in which Heather utters “game over”, before proceeding to shoot Leonard causing him to fly backwards in super slow motion, belongs in a Zone Horror movie. Also, why does the town feel less like a purgatory style punishment and more like a Butlins run by H.H. Holmes. Isolation is one of the greatest assets in horror: it eliminates the false hope that comes with safety in number and considering Heather is trapped in Silent Hill, she does come across a hell of a lot of other souls. When Heather stumbles across the remaining two members of a lost tourist group, I couldn’t help uttering: “There goes the neighbourhood”.