This is great, serious horror, with a director that appreciates what you do monster-wise.
—Paul Jones, Make-Up Effects, “Path of Darkness: Making Silent Hill”
Can you do that with a skirt?
—Christophe Gans, “Path of Darkness: Making Silent Hill”
“I read it like Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno,” says Debra Kara Unger. At the start of “Path of Darkness: Making Silent Hill,” included on Sony’s new DVD, the three central players—Unger, Radha Mitchell, abd Laurie Holden—recall their first reactions to Roger Avary’s script. All say they’re impressed by the “ideas.” Director Christophe Gans says he played the game for three or four hours, then realized it could be the basis of a movie. “It’s one of the most absolute fear I ever experienced.”
“He has a very surrealist sort of vision of the game,” says Mitchell. “And the game itself sort of explores the boundaries of reality, and that’s what the film does.” Just so, her character, Rose, is faced immediately with a nightmare, as her sleepwalking daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) leads her on a wild chase across the highway through a nearby stretch of scary woods, and finally to the edge of a cliff that features an fearsome waterfall. Rose yells, “Wait for mommy!” repeatedly as she scurries over this bizarre terrain while dressed in her sleepwear—short shorts and skimpy undershirt—bounding in front of oncoming traffic and leaping across ridiculous heights, and reaching the girl just in time to save her from plunging into the dark water below.
As Avary describes the concept in the documentary, “We wanted to create something that derived elements from the Silent Hill games and the Silent Hill universe, but that was a bit of a creature on its own.” While Gans says he wanted to hang onto the characters’ “emotional” lives (while recognizing the conceptual differences between a game and a film), Avary asserts that he wanted to maintain the game’s “spirit” and move on. This spirit is visible throughout: the movie is illogical in the ways that nightmares and games tend to be, and so the characters—especially Rose, pursuing her daughter through a creepily sci-fi-ish environment—provide its coherence.
Rose gets precious little help from her husband Chris (Sean Bean), who suggests that Sharon needs professional help (institutionalization), inspiring Rose to seek help on her own. She and Sharon head to Silent Hill, a town the girl pronounces during her sleepwalking adventures. Somehow, Rose imagines, going to this place will solve her adopted daughter’s trauma. Sitting beneath a tree in the sunshine, they close their eyes and maybe fall asleep, to suggest that what follows is a dream. Or they’re both already dead from the first scene, and what follows takes place in an especially terrible purgatory.
The drive to Silent Hill is punctuated by Chris’ frantic phone calls to Rose, imploring her not to go, as he looks up on the town’s history on the net and discovers it’s actually closed down, owing to an ongoing coal mine fire beneath the ground. Zooming along in her Jeep, Rose draws the interest of motorcycle cop named Cybil (Holden, who says, “This is by far my coolest action role; she’s an action gal but she’s got a heart”). She wears one serious pair of skintight shiny britches and black knee-high boots, and carries a large handgun.
As Rose and Cybil make their way through the puzzle of Silent Hill (106 different sets built, says Gans), searching for Sharon, they confront impossible streets and cones, as well as weather ranging from dreadful downpours to pervasive ash-in-the-air, sometimes night, sometimes day. As Rose has been knocked out by her car crash, and wakes to find Sharon missing from the car, she spends the rest of the film trying to find her daughter, wandering desolate streets and occasionally running into dread-headed Dahlia (Unger, who says Dahlia is “a lot more complicated character than I anticipated her being,” having “visited every link of every fan site”), another mother of a missing daughter. Unger says, “It’s certainly a female-driven piece, which is a delight.” This apparently despite all the trauma endured by these females and because of the “playful environment” they developed on the set (illustrated by several shots of the girls dancing in the documentary).
The seeming object of the women’s desire, Sharon appears intermittently, running through hallways or leading Rose on lengthy chases down dark alleys and into grim basements. Conveniently discovering a lighter in her pocket and a series of decrepit-looking flashlights that always work, Rose repeatedly confronts oddball monster-typess, some boneless sorts (bendy and crawly), some a bit jaunty, and some downright ugly. As Mitchell puts it, Gans “constantly disgusts us with these different visions and insinuations.” Sometimes their skin flies off like it’s burning, sometimes they spew bloody-looking goo. One victim-monster has his head tied to his feet, so he’s reduced to scootching along the floor.
The most disgusting female figure shows up late: Christabella (Alice Krige, who says she had never played a computer game before she read the script and so had no context for its strange shape). Leader of a kind-of cult inhabiting Silent Hill, Alice says they’re witch-burners, and that all the missing girls are witches in need of fiery demises in order to perpetuate the townspeople’s “purity.” (When Christabella says, “We fight the demon,” and “We drew a line in the sand,” it’s hard not to think of other evildoer fighters in the news.)
“It was Christophe’s vision that Rose is very much a normal person in this un-normal world,” says Mitchell. “But she does get to engage in stunts, which is, like, every actor’s fantasy.” She laughs, and the documentary reveals the wires and padding and women flying around, and it does look like fun, especially with the percussive soundtrack, adding a sense of urgency to the whole shebang (this even as the actual film’s lack of logic can make the pace seem pokey).
Mitchell is equally enthusiastic about the monsters, which she calls “elegant” as well as “bizarre and creepy, like they’ve come out of some sadomasochist’s handbook.” They are also gorgeously choreographed, dancing like they’ve stepped out of “Thriller.” “These are cursed human beings in pain, and so it’s an exaggerated body language,” says Creature Movement Coordinator Roberto Campanella. As the dancers describe their process in the documentary, their conjuring of bizarre, fragmented and sinuous, movements, you might find yourself appreciating the film as a kind of ballet. The illogic of the plot, the lack of rehearsal time, and the determination to achieve a “disturbing” effect (to reproduce the “movement of the video game”) come together as abstraction in ways they just can’t as narrative.