There are plenty of reasons you might walk out of Silent Hill: Revelation 3D feeling like you just wasted your money. I am not here to say that you would be wrong in feeling that way; in fact, I expect that the movie you might see could, in fact, legitimately disappoint you. The thing about disappointment, though, is that it doesn't exist in a vacuum—it is very much a product of one's prejudices.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am not saying that I somehow saw the movie without prejudice and tapped into its objective value. I only want to tell you that I think my prejudices, going in, were of a different sort than the ones of those who have widely disparaged the film, and to try to convey, to those of you still interested in seeing it, what I think ought to be buzzing in the back of your head to enjoy it. Not in the sense that you will need a background in critical theory or film studies for that enjoyment; just that, if genre is anything, then it is a preemptive realignment of its consumers' prejudices, and I think you would enjoy the film much more if you realized going in that it isn't a horror movie.
Revelation is a sequel to 2006's Silent Hill, and an adaptation of the video game Silent Hill 3. It is also the story of Heather (Adelaide Clemens), formerly Sharon (Jodelle Ferland, in the first film), who was taken as a baby from Silent Hill, a lost town in West Virginia that sits atop an eternal coal fire, and which exists in something like an alternate dimension populated by monsters, cults, and other horror tropes. It is specifically the story of how, on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, Silent Hill begins again to seek Heather out, ultimately kidnapping her father to force her to return so that its resident cultists can kill the little-girl-turned-demonic-force Alessa who torments the town, because Heather is the good side of Alessa's soul that was split off after she was burned alive by the very same cultists decades before. But then, that is sort of like saying that "The Call of Cthulhu" is about a sailor discovering a nifty little island and fighting a monster.
If Revelation is not a horror film, it is because, despite all of these obvious horror tropes, it lacks the affect of horror. More than that, after you get past the (often bungled) jump scares, there are very few moments where it even seems vaguely interested in frightening the viewer. The moment toward the middle of the film when Vincent (Kit Harington) reveals to Heather that the monstrous incursions into her world are actually produced by Heather herself is a hilariously literal admission of this fact: the spooky stuff thus far is not only not particularly scary to the viewers, it doesn't even pose a threat to the protagonist. The tension that we assume we were supposed to be experiencing is not a problem with the execution, but the world of the film, which does not conform to our expectations. The focus, then, must not be on how the monsters scare us, but what they look like, how they move, and so on. Given all this, along with the glee it takes in realizing its monsters and their setting, Revelation most comfortably falls into that strange genre known as Weird Fiction. And as Lovecraftian as it may at times seem, its most clear predecessor is not Lovecraft, but William Hope Hodgson.
Hodgson, with his 1908 novel The House on the Borderland, inaugurated a narrative structure which has been replicated often in the horror genre, and which Revelation mimics. Essentially, The House on the Borderland begins in a comfortable space for the protagonist which nevertheless has an element of strangeness. The first half of the text is spent undermining that comfort by developing the strangeness into a fever pitch, with both internal and external threats. What makes Hodgson's structure unique is that the second half of the text suddenly abandons the space, on very shaky narrative grounds, in order to allow the protagonist to explore a new space. From Olaf Stapledon's super condensed, SFnal version of this structure in Star Maker (1937) to Greg Bear's early horror thriller Psychlone (aka Lost Souls, 1979) to the execrable film FeardotCom (2002), what allows this structure to work is when it can utterly lose itself in the weirdness of its universe. In Hodgson and Stapledon, the disembodied journey through outer space allows the author a fidelity to images and ideas that would be thoroughly diluted by a strict narrative structure; FeardotCom is such a disaster (beyond the myriad technical weaknesses) because it tries to open itself up to explore, but ends up clinging so tightly to its inherent moralism and desire for a three-act structure that it implodes. Revelation doesn't avoid all of the pitfalls of this structure, especially in the terribly executed romantic arc, but it more than makes up for its occasional bumbling by remaining unrepentantly fascinated with its own inner workings—primarily its visual style.
All but the most curmudgeonly reviewers, especially those (the majority) who despised the film, acknowledge that it has great visuals. What they fail to accept, however, and in so doing condemn the film, is that cinema is at least as much an audiovisual art as it is a narrative one (and composer Akira Yamaoka, whose score for the games made them what they are, is on point throughout for the audio component), and saying a movie has great images but nothing else is a bit like saying a song sounds good but there's nothing else there; not an invalid criticism, surely, but one which necessitates a deeper subsequent engagement with how the other parts fail than, roughly, "I didn't understand what was happening, so it was bad." In doing so, they refuse to acknowledge that a narrative which is less than straightforward can be a feature, and not a bug, so long as it acts as a supplement to the real focus. And in a film in which the weirdness is already established as the structural focus, only a plot of Lovecraftian levels of occult confusion can suffice.
"What is happening," on the level of plot, is fairly easily sussed out once the Weird frame is in place. Monsters and settings which are "indescribable" (generally a code for irreducibly material) nevertheless require an explanation, especially when they appear in literature; the best language we have for describing the indescribable is the language of mysticism, the occult, symbolism, or mythology; so the film sets up a (positively Lovecraftian, before August Derleth ruined everything) clusterfuck of occult and mythological symbolism that serves to simultaneously obscure and illuminate its true interests, the monsters. To see this strategy in effect in film, one need look no farther than David Lynch, whose influence on the games is well documented. The prominent use of colored lighting and quasi-paranormal intrusions into his films leads disgruntled critics to claim incomprehensibility (or worse: to offer long, boring, Freudian defenses of the films) when, if they just took a moment to stop trying to write the review of the film while they were watching it, they could easily see that the film resists interpretation precisely because it wants you to focus on the total experience of film.
The real concern of Revelation rests neither with Heather nor with the cinematic experience as such, but with adapting what is arguably the most filmic video game series ever into an actual film, and using the resources and limitations of this form to present an engaging visual experience. I call the Silent Hill games filmic—as opposed to cinematic, which seems to be thrown at every video game that has been produced since at least the mid-2000s—because what is perhaps most interesting about the series (or at least the original trilogy) is the way it subverts a fundamental assumption about video games. The assumption, which is never, ever acknowledged, because it sounds too similar to what we know to be Bad Writing, is that a video game's protagonist is merely an object among objects, a cipher for the player to control, with no internal life of her own.
Because video games are an interactive form, and because the narrative arc tends to rely on making the player fully identify with the protagonist, a video game's protagonist cannot have their own robust interior life, which would only get in the way of the player's identification with them. The most obvious way this is done is with the amnesiac protagonist. This trope is so common precisely because it is such an elegant solution to the demands of video games, which need somehow to have a character who is the center of the story and yet is totally devoid of interiority; the amnesiac that we control is precisely that, an individual with a history that we can discover, but no memory. What Silent Hill did was to acknowledge that the player took up the space of the character's interiority, but decided that, instead of just dissolving it, their interiority would instead be the creative direction of the whole game. The town of Silent Hill is itself nothing but the protagonist's interiority, a refraction of their traumas and memories through the prism of horror tropes, and their journey through it an exploration of a non-agentive (as they are still controlled by the player) but nevertheless still completely realized subjectivity.
The Silent Hill series, then, are basically expressionistic video games. The problem, though, is that making a truly Expressionist video game is not only innovative in terms of form, but has profound effects on the way the player interacts with it. Making an expressionistic film, on the other hand, might be an interesting way of putting the film in dialogue with the history of cinema, and might even result in something interesting in itself, but would ultimately lack the ability to similarly affect the viewer. A film adaptation of the Silent Hill games, then, must decide whether it chooses to remain faithful to the Expressionist style in and of itself, or to the ways in which the choice of that style affected the form in which it was presented.
The original Silent Hill movie opted for the former, creating a world in which the setting and its inhabitants reflected the fears and desires of its protagonist; Revelation opts for the latter. While both, I think, are worth watching, the sequel's choice is the more radical and, ultimately, interesting of the two. Because instead of following the video games to the letter, which cannot help but result in a conventional film, the sequel instead follows the spirit of the games, in which the object of subversion is not a particular trope but the form itself. So instead of being yet another film in which we learn that, at the end, it was all a dream, Revelation is a film without interiority, without that anchoring subject through whose psyche we interpret the mise-en-scène; and so, ultimately, it is a film about what it shows you, in a radical way.
What it shows you, of course, is never totally absent of psychology. But neither is it structured by it. The misuse of the monster Pyramid Head here is instructive—he appears only in Silent Hill 2 (of the four original games developed by Team Silent, at least) while both movie versions (based primarily on Silent Hill and Silent Hill 3, respectively) feature him prominently. Beyond branding concerns, this shows a rift with the psychological motivations of the games. Pyramid Head is, quite literally, the psychological projection of a character who doesn't even exist in the universe that the film franchise is building. He is, then, only a really cool monster, a menacing, deformed humanoid that looks really, really awesome. And that, for this film, is all he needs to be. From the creepy twitching mass that is the Armless Man, to the delightful fabrication of something between M.R. James's spiders from "The Ash-Tree" and Baby Face, the mutant spider/baby doll hybrid from Toy Story, in the Mannequin Monster, to the ever-creepy Puppet Nurses who stand frozen until they sense movement, to Leonard Wolf's (Malcolm McDowell) hulking, tattered bulk, this film's creatures become a working subset of the taxonomy of the weird, where the universe does not need to justify itself to man, and any attempt to make it do so results in madness. Revelation avoids the (racist) moralism of Lovecraft's weird, however, by presenting its eldritch horrors as neither cause nor effect of that coldness, but material iterations of it, whose status as pure spectacle even on the narrative level of the film, in addition to the way they invert their source material, suggests a relentlessly nihilistic cosmos which nevertheless retains a keen sense of what's cool.
Shifting away from Expressionism toward the Weird could understandably be said to be a betrayal of the subject matter, even though I think the shift is actually more deeply motivated by fidelity than a literal transference would afford. But even with that possibility of disappointment, Revelation should be given its due. It is a film that does interesting things visually in a genre that is remarkably fresh, but even more than that, it is a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience that really only requires that one divest the notion that a character-driven narrative is the only possible experience that cinema has to offer.
One glance at the stills from the opening dream sequence should tell you whether or not you can walk into the theater (or buy the DVD when it comes out—though I will say that the 3D effects in this, particularly with the Armless Man in the school hallway, are much more inventive than they have been given credit for) without regretting your decision. If the color saturation, the video game iconography, and the stylization work for you, and you are interested in seeing them played more for "oooohs" than "eeks," you are in for an enjoyable ride.
Ben Gabriel blogs at Uninterpretative.
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