Movie Review: "Silent Hill"--and a brief diatribe about the horror genre in general
Well, it's been a while since I've done one of these. *stretches fingers, cracks knuckles*
This weekend, being as we had an unexpected weekend "off," Bobby and I indulged in quite a bit of movie-watching. First of all, we saw two excellent ones: Downfall, a German movie with English subtitles about the last days of Hitler's regime (which gave us both a new appreciation for how cool ranting sounds in German; you just can't get the same effect in English!) and Paradise Now, in Arabic with English subtitles (because we're both hopelessly narrow in terms of language) about two Palestinian suicide bombers on a "mission" in Tel Aviv. I highly recommend them both, but I am not going to review them here, as it always feels rather pointless to review movies that I really like. I begin to sound like a first grader's book report: "I liked this and I liked that." Bleh.
Also, I am not fully comfortable working in that genre. Do not let some of my tastes in movies fool you: When it comes to fantasy and horror, I am hopelessly shallow. I love the campy, cliched megaplex tripe that masquerades under the guise of "horror." (Though I often want to laugh than scream.) Really, I don't know why I enjoy them so much. Bobby and I frequently rent independent horror films where we spend much of the movie debunking the premise on which the movie is built* or giggling at the atrocious acting. But it is a bona fide guilty pleasure that we both share. (On our last foray at Blockbuster, I found a movie called Mr. Hell. Oh yeah. But that one looks so good it will have to wait for Halloween.)
* For example, we recently rented one called (I think) Shallow Ground where the premise for seeking the killer was based off of an EMT pulling out her science kit microscope that reminds me of the one I had when I was eight years old and still wanted to be an entomologist and "studying" a blood sample. After peering in the microscope for three seconds, she gasped and said, "There's at least the blood of three people here!" My, my what a small town that must be that can afford a microscope that does DNA testing too! And so fast! (Owww...the bad!science! It burns!)
Before I go any further, though, there is something that I want outside the cut: Sharon, do not see this movie. There are some very squicky fire/burning scenes that you will not like. Others on flist, if you do not like fire and burning, do not see this movie either. You will be squicked.
And you have been warned. Now onto the review, which contains potential spoilers. But I'll try to keep this to a minimum. (And isn't knowing that a movie is "horror," in itself, kind of a spoiler?)
The movie is based off of a video game, but all I know of the game is what I have read off of the back of the box while waiting for Bobby and Potter to browse in Electronics Boutique. And so I went into it with little knowledge as to the premise of the game or its purpose or its resolution.
The movie begins with a little girl (Sharon) who is having nightmares and sleepingwalking (dangerously, I might add, near cliffs) and awakens screaming the name "Silent Hill!" Silent Hill, her parents discover, is a mountain town in West Virginia that was ravaged by fire some years prior and has since been deserted because of the coal fires still burning underground. Naturally, lots of people died in presumably awful ways; naturally, there is a little more to the fire than what the police are willing to report.
So Mum does the logical thing and takes Sharon to Silent Hill to "confront her demons," so to speak. Without going into great detail, Mum wakes up after a car wreck just outside of Silent Hill. Sharon is missing. And a lady-cop named Cybil who had pursued the errant pair is embroiled in the trouble with them.
I approach horror movies from a couple of standpoints. First, atmosphere: How scary does the movie feel? Does it have a good creepy vibe or even terrifying vibe going? And of course, plot, most often unoriginal and cliche, but every now and then you get one built on a premise (White Noise and The Mothman Prophecies come first to mind) that is original and engaging and keeps you guessing throughout. Of course, Dawn can't watch a movie without analyzing the characters, and despite the fact that it's "genre," empathetic characters can still make an otherwise bland movie worth watching.
I don't count special effects. Why? Because eye-candy only amuses me for so long (I dissociated through much of the Helm's Deep battle in The Two Towers), and in this modern age, special effects have really become a dime a dozen and rather unremarkable. But for the benefit of those who do go to movies to say, "Oh, cool!" at special effects, I will say that I found the SE in Silent Hill to be quite good for one (like me) who pays very little attention to these sorts of things.
So, if I could say a few things to the director of Silent Hill....
Y'all did okay on the atmosphere. Actually, I found the horror elements to be quite good. A girl can only take so many skulls or shambling corpses or big spiders. (Although there were some critters like the scarabs in The Mummy series, for those of you who have seen that. *blushes and admits to seeing them all, even the one with The Rock in it*) The critters were humanoid and just...twisted. Really. They were quite scary in a surprisingly profound way. Too many horror movies rely on jump-out-and-go-boo! tactics or sheer squick. But these things...just scary.
The environment was scary too: lots of chainlink fence (which gives the tantalizing view of escape even as it holds one trapped, rattling it desperately) and barbed wire and when that siren went off...*shudders* (Now that could just be a lingering post-traumatic reaction from War of the Worlds....) It also didn't help that Silent Hill very closely resembled historic Ellicott City.
A movie is not a video game.
In a video game, you have the dramatic music...the cut away to the creatures shambling down the hall or over the hill...and you grip your controller and prepare to either run or kick ass.
I can't help but feel that encounters in movies should be less...contained. It strikes me as unbelievable that certain creatures would exist only in certain rooms. They would not pervade the town. They would not appear in multiple places. Only that once...and if you defeat them or otherwise escape, you know you're gonna be okay.
Unfortunately, this movie gave that impression. Aside from the "fiend" (an impressive fellow, indeed, with a massive knife and a pointy-type helmet that defies description at the moment), the critters faced by the protagonist appeared only once in settings that, sadly, are best described as "video game."
I am sure that fans of the game were elbowing each other and going, "OMG it's a [fill in the blank with critter name]!" Bobby and I did that at Resident Evil, having played all of the games before seeing the movie. "OMG, it's a licker! Flippin' sweet!" But for a movie, it feels false.
Now for the plot: If you're going to introduce a character, please use him.
Now we all love Sean Bean in movies. He's Boromir, after all, and invokes pleasant memories of those heady times when the LotR trilogy was still in the theaters. But really. The guy appeared, went to Silent Hill, even engaged in a little light B&E to discover the truth. Then got put into his place by a cop, threw up his hands, and went home. WTF?
Sadly, Sean Bean's parts in the movie were a distraction, a body stuck up in front of the screen who you're stuck trying to peer around to see more of the action in Silent Hill.
Also, lead characters need not be Everyman. In other words: bland. I really felt no empathy for the lead character (whose name I can't even remember at the moment) nor her vapid-eyed, scary-picture-drawing daughter. The lady-cop was probably the best character, although someone needs to tell them that lady-cops--even those who scoot about on motorcycles--do not need to wear leather hotpants.
But seriously, I would love to see in a movie for once someone who runs like a scared little girl at the sight of the guy dragging the ginormous knife, peeing her pants and huddling under furniture, rather than bravely pursuing The Truth At All Costs. I'd love to see a flawed character, instead of one with a pie-eyed stare breathing, "She's adopted, but I knew I was her mother the moment I laid eyes on her." Blech.
(I'd be huddling under the furniture and peeing my pants, that's for sure!)
The premise of the story: interesting but not entirely original. Witch-burning and religious fanaticism are a bit overdone, in my humblest of humble opinions. (Pardon the bad pun, please!) And The Truth was revealed a little awkwardly, in my authorial opinion: I do not generally like to be going idly along and then thrown into a chunk of backstory the size of Texas. I prefer my backstory a bit more...insidious. It feels less an interruption, less forced. Can I think of a better way? Not at the moment, no, but I think that's something worth spending more time as a writer, to introduce the audience to the full scope of the story rather than lobbing it all on us at one time like a ladleful of cafeteria mashed 'taters. Let the audience find their own epiphany.
Also, I must add--and I'm a blood-phobic and do have a squick-quotient, so I think I have a right--that horror writers, if they're willing to torture their characters first, really need to get a better grip on death.
Nothing evokes giggles like the old-school slasher film where the girl gets stabbed in the boob and keels over and dies. Not that simple folks.
Nor does someone being burned at the stake simply shrivel up, roll her eyes back in her head, and go out like a candle. (Bad pun again...sorry!) If you're going to show the horrifying, skin-peeling detail, at least don't wimp out on the actual death. Or--if you're afraid of taking it too far--cut away and leave it do the audience's imagination. But don't make us believe that death by burning is a twenty-second ordeal.
(Also, I must confess, that the mob hording around the protagonists and screaming, "She's a witch! Burn her! Burn her!" evoked much sniggering and thoughts about Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
"And what else do we burn besides witches?"
Despite picking apart aspects of this movie, the atmosphere of it really made up for its shortcomings. The horror was imaginative and did not rely so heavily as others in the genre on cheap ploys and fear tactics. It was squicky in a bearable way. But it certainly had its shortcomings, as do most movies in the genre.
I give it 2.5 Keebler E.L. Fudge "Elves Exist" cookies out of four. Which is actually a good rating for a horror movie.
Now, because I like to discuss writing and I know that some of you like to discuss writing, I will ask: What scares you in fiction? It could be movies or stories...but I think that we all have that one thing that frightens the bejesus out of us. So how did that writer do it? How can we--as authors--write convincing horror stories or scary scenes when we need to?
For me, I will admit, it is squicky, prolonged painful deaths and torture. Yes, this from the girl who saw Hostel and went for milkshakes afterward. This does not mean that I do not watch such things (I do), but there are certainly times when I must invoke the trick of looking just above the screen so as not to really see. (Anything involving eyes or gruesome wounds is likely to bother me.) Also, I tend to research these movies under the premise of "reading reviews" in order to know all of the gimmicks before I go into the theater. I did this with Hostel; I did this with Saw 1. (Saw 2--being as Saw 1 did not bother me--I didn't see the point of such rigmarole.)
I remember "reading reviews" about Hostel before going to see it (on opening night, yes), and one reviewer pointed out that horror movies have taken a sinister turn from the portrayal of either neat-'n'-clean death (see earlier comment of fatal boob-stabbing) or off-screen death (you know, when your eviscerated friend drops out of the closet when you open it) to gruesome, tortuous death. And the big horror blockbusters certainly underscore this trend: the Saw movies, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and--perhaps most egregiously--Hostel. This reviewer posited that we have grown bored of dying characters. We no longer empathize. We no longer watch the movie with our feet squarely in the character's shoes as she is nearly stabbed in the head while screaming mild expletives at the car that won't start. He believed that we watch movies like Saw and Hostel, though, while imagining ourselves in the situations presented, being forced to crawl through razor wire or being threatened with power tools and the like.
I think that regardless of whether one agrees with this reviewer's exact point, it is important to note that empathy is the biggest key to making horror scary. When you empathize with a character, it is not a far leap to experiencing the horror as the character does...and lamenting his/her maiming or death almost as we would that of a friend.
Which is why movies like Silent Hill tick me off in choosing a heroic, infallable Everywoman for a protagonist instead of some flawed, chain-smoking, hiding-in-a-garbage-dumpster sinner with bad hair like the rest of us. The division between Good and Evil was too clean in Silent Hill...up to the ending, that is. Witch-hunters: Evil. Mommy-trying-to-save-persecuted-daughter-f
When I was young, I thought that Stephen King was the Best Author Evah (tm), and I still enjoy his writing to this day. (Although the man has an annoying habit for conjuring peevishly anticlimatic and slightly cheesy endings. A giant spider at the end of It? After all that stuff with clowns and giant sparrows and crawling through the sewers?? C'mon!) One of the reasons that I think his work scares so many people and is so hugely popular is because of his characters: His characters are the most imperfect slobs that you can find on this side of Alabamie. (No offense to Alabamie natives, by the way; my grandmaw was from Alabamie, so I can assure you that I'm just teasing.) His stories are really about how ordinary folks react to extraordinary events. As I've said, I've never found anything exceptionally unique about his stories. The plotlines focus on elements that have been part of our collective fears for...ever? Rabid dogs, giant spiders, psychotic cars...it's not like he's creating fluffy-bunny phobias here, although lots of kids will credit their fear of clowns to It. (Still, a fear of clowns is pretty ubiquitous in small children...and some adults. My sister was afraid of clowns when we were small, and It had nothing to do with her phobia.) Another author I read voraciously in the middle-school years was Dean Koontz, and while I embraced his stories for the intricate plots involving spy satellites and the chemical composition of Vaseline, it's King's novels that have stuck with me ten years later, and while Koontz certainly uses horror elements, few of his stories are actually scary.
But Koontz more often that not uses ex-cop heroes on a mission to Do Good (tm). My favorites of his stories--Watchers and Twilight Eyes being my absolutes--use more sympathetic characters.
I think that once you get a reader to willingly hop into your character's shoes and peer at the world through his/her eyes, you're halfway to a scary story. Now all you need to do is scare the character...and the reader will be scared too.
Of course, I know it is not that easy. I love to write horror and live with the feeling that 90% of the time, I fail. It's so often written off as a cheap genre because 98% of what it has to offer is complete bunk, but that one story that makes the reader want to simlutaneously turn the page and close the book and hide at the same time proves that it can be done, it's just a difficult endeavor.
I am interested to know, for those of you with an interest in such things: What horror tactics (movie or book) have worked for you in the past? Do you have a secret for writing horror in your own stories? Or any definite no-no's? I'm interested to know, so leave as short, long, rambly, or irrelevant comments as you'd like.