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Exploring the cramped, beautiful cinematography of survival horror

This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six on Friday, May 15th.

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Silent Hill 2 is a game that tells a straightforward story about repressed guilt. Protagonist James Sunderland comes to the titular town after receiving a letter from his dead wife Mary, and he meets a woman named Maria … who looks a lot like Mary. The direction the story takes is unsurprising in its broad strokes: James may have had something to do with his wife’s death, and maybe something’s not right with Silent Hill!

What’s unique about the game is the way it invisibly blends a hard-and-fast narrative with input from the player. Rather than obvious points of narrative divergence where the player picks an option or takes action when prompted, the game collates a long list of things you’ve done while playing to come up with one of six possible endings: all without ever cluing the player in on this process.

These games don’t care about the player. Period.

Survival horror was flowering in the early 2000s, with games as disparate as the indescribable fairy tale Rule of Rose, the combat-free Gothic Haunting Ground, and the dread-laden Fatal Frame III carrying the genre forward. What they all shared with Silent Hill 2, and what defines the genre beyond the basics of resource scarcity and hapless protagonists, was an attitude: horror as something dangerous, something transgressive and inaccessible. These games don’t care about the player. Period.

To wit: Silent Hill 2’s choices are not a system you could possibly spot while playing the game for the first time: it tracks things as granular as whether or not you heal quickly after taking damage to determine if, say, James ends up suicidal at the end of his journey, or whether you stay away from Maria and look at Mary-related items in your inventory to determine whether James is ultimately granted forgiveness for his actions.

Yes, this is insane. It’s completely counter to everything we see in most other big-budget games, withholding crucial information and relying on an almost supernatural level of identification with James and his actions to follow the logic at play. But it’s the kind of obtuse decision that gives Silent Hill 2 its remarkable power; the game is stubbornly opaque in a literary way, deploying symbolism and metaphor to unsettling effect and always remaining just beyond easy comprehension.

The quietly branching narrative system would be impossible to adapt on film in any traditional way; it would require a command of formal technique way beyond the level of the people who get tapped to direct videogame adaptations. It’s just not something that plays to the strengths of film, relying as it does on interactivity. Survival-horror games thrive on restricting the player, on hobbling her strength, her awareness, and her options. Doing that on film, with Konami and a studio budget behind you, would be a tough sell.

a display of unnerving omniscience by the camera

Nevertheless, in 2006, Christophe Gans’s Silent Hill was released, making a brave attempt to corral this series’ madness into a digestible form. A French director previously known for the bonkers martial arts-meets-Hammer Horror Brotherhood of the Wolf and a dismal adaptation of the long-running manga Crying Freeman, Gans lobbied for years to get the rights to Silent Hill, and his florid sensibility gives the film undeniable personality.

Gans takes every opportunity to indulge his fantasy leanings; as Rose descends into the rust-and-blood underworld of Silent Hill, everyone from Dario Argento to Jean Cocteau gets a shoutout via repeated shots of women exploring big musty practical sets. He largely eschews rapid cutting and sloppy coverage (shooting a scene from every conceivable angle to cover one’s butt) for camera movement and explicit lifts from the inventive cinematography of the game itself: Silent Hill, like Resident Evil, uses fixed camera angles as a further means of wresting control from the player, wringing tension out of off-screen space.

The operative shot here is as follows: Rose turns a corner into an alleyway, framed in a long shot. The camera slowly cranes up in an arc to put her at the bottom point of a “V” as she reaches a turn. It then follows her as she moves further down the alley, swooping back down at an angle to squash her between two looming rectangles of black space. It’s an excessive move, up there with Argento’s infamously indulgent crane shot in Tenebre, but it’s also pulled verbatim from the game—a display of unnerving omniscience by the camera, suggesting that even the formal elements of this game are malevolent.

It’s in these moments, the moments where the film evokes not the boilerplate cult junk or the stifling particulars of how Silent Hill got so messed up but the feeling of playing the game and exploring its surreal, hostile spaces, that Gans makes magic. Using the toolset he has access to as a filmmaker, he’s able to approximate the best qualities of Silent Hill as a videogame.

At 125 minutes it’s longer than it has any right to be

He’s aided by the infinitely wise decision to cull the soundtrack from the first three games, ending up with the mix of plaintive piano and scraping noise that is as crucial to Silent Hill as Angelo Badalamenti is to Twin Peaks.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of cruft in here. At 125 minutes it’s longer than it has any right to be, especially when a solid half-hour consists of Sean Bean looking up “Silent Hill” on various computers and yelling about his missing wife. The acting is largely reprehensible, the script is boneheaded, and the fan-service inclusion of nearly every monster from the games strips them of any unique metaphorical potential. There’s also a long expository monologue that misapprehends horror as something that can be explained rather than experienced—doubly disappointing when considering how well the film works as a visual piece.

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That’s still a victory. Take, as counterpoint, the case of 2002’s Resident Evil, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, also responsible for Mortal Kombat, Alien vs. Predator, and the Hellraiser-in-space riff Event Horizon. Anderson has his champions among vulgar auterists, those critics that give props to overlooked or disparaged directors who are really good at action and shot composition and visualizing space—the things that can save a bad script and questionable acting.

That Paul W.S. Anderson doesn’t entirely show up for Resident Evil. The film does have cool ideas—its first shot is a gradual push-in on a glovebox (the lab kind, not the car kind) from behind, in some pitch-black extradiegetic space. The rectangle of light grows larger and larger until it’s fully in frame. It’s a promising note to start the film on, a sort of drawing-the-curtains moment that lends weight to the opening scene.

Unfortunately, Anderson finds himself lost about half the time. For every flash of creativity, like a series of shots that seamlessly wipe between characters situated in the same position in the frame, there’s a tangibly post-Fight Club tracking shot through the world’s worst CG environment or an awkward cut on an actor who clearly can’t get through their line in one take (Daniel from Ugly Betty, I’ve learned, cannot effect a gruff cop voice to save his life).

The film avoids horror entirely

But let’s back up. Resident Evil, the videogame, had just seen its Gamecube remake in 2002, a beautiful, rich survival-horror experience that gave the series’ cinematic aspirations new life. George Romero’s Dead trilogy is an obvious touchstone—and in a bit of thwarted serendipity, he was slated to write and direct the movie at one point—but there’s also a lot of ‘80s action cinema in the bulked-up, taciturn male characters and the preposterousness of the game’s story.

The film avoids horror entirely, instead going whole-hog on that action stuff: we get some bullet time, a few Cube-esque deadly traps, and some ill-advised wire-fu to give us the eternal sight of Milla Jovovich jump-kicking a doberman covered in fake blood. Zombies should be red meat for any action filmmaker, but Anderson’s heart doesn’t really seem to be in this stuff: it’s a lot of shot/reverse shot banality, not helped by the bargain-bin zombie makeup or the strangely bloodless violence.

What does seem to excite him are the twisty mechanical spaces of “the Hive,” a subterranean research facility full of mirrors and lasers and fluorescent lights. The sets aren’t quite up to par, but Anderson visibly wakes up whenever the opportunity arises to track someone ducking between pipes or advancing step-by-step into sheer darkness, lit only at the edges. One shot refracts Jovovich’s face into an abstract, bokeh-smeared glimmer; others nod— rather ambitiously, given the context—to the chilly, spacious compositions of Stanley Kubrick.

Anderson also gives the film a cheeky subtext with regards to its source material. Jovovich’s Alice awakes naked in a shower, blank but self-aware. If anyone is “good” in this movie, it’s her: her open, expressive face works wonders. Alice pulls on a red dress (the first of the film’s muddled allusions to fairy tales; the AI antagonist is named the “Red Queen”) and wanders around a mansion in silence … a place much like the games’ iconic Spencer Mansion. There are a few self-consciously shlocky jump scares (just the wind! just some birds!), and Anderson makes the space unnaturally cavernous with big wide-angle long shots of Jovovich, dwarfed by the artificiality of her surroundings. She’s an avatar awakening to a constructed world, claustrophobic in its emptiness.

But then through the windows—not zombie dogs, as the viewer might expect had she played the games, but a SWAT team shot from cartoonishly low angles. “This isn’t your PlayStation’s Resident Evil,” Anderson shouts. As the dismal, carbon-dated ‘90s score by the slumming-it trio of Clint Mansell, Marco Beltrami, and Marilyn Manson chugs away, we are explicitly cued that this is a fresher, hopefully cooler, distinctly post-Matrix Resident Evil.

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These films have their pleasures, to be sure, whether it’s the madcap, gleefully gory conclusion of Silent Hill that plays like Lucio Fulci given a budget or Resident Evil’s Michelle Rodriguez playing what I can only assume is herself at this point, cleaning her nails with a combat knife and snarling with unchecked aggression at every possible moment (“Blow me,” she says to Daniel from Ugly Betty). Their small successes are ultimately more instructive than the ways which they falter.

That’s a realm still untapped by any videogame or film sequel since

After all, it’s churlish to complain that Resident Evil isn’t scary, five movies in, or that they aren’t like the games. They’re well beyond that now; they’re distinctly their own thing. Anderson took the second and third movies off, but his most recent efforts are lightyears ahead, a sort of dumping ground for whatever strikes his fancy: riffing on prison movies, Inception, single-shot Akira references, just throwing formal gimmicks onto a pop-art fire that crackles with creative abandon. In this way it’s closer to a videogame than if it had stuck to the letter of the games: it reinvents and iterates and builds on itself with each new entry into the franchise, always centered on an identifiable protagonist.

As for Silent Hill, it got one sequel, a film I’m sure I watched but could not tell you anything about, save that it probably features Pyramid Head. But Gans’s film was better-realized than Resident Evil from the jump, leaving really nowhere to go afterward except for the Lynchian psychological horror of Silent Hill 2. That’s a realm still untapped by any videogame or film sequel since: it’s hard to top a story about a guy who smothers his dead wife and is thereafter tormented by grotesque visions of his own impotence.

This was the promise of Silent Hills, the Hideo Kojima/Guillermo del Toro project that Konami has resolutely scrubbed out of existence; its now-unavailable conceptual demo P.T. dealt in the kind of impossible spaces and abrasive, genuinely surreal horror that defines the series at its best. The mythology of the series is hokum: the way in which it creeps into the liminal spaces between comprehension and abjection, wielding ambiguity like a weapon, is eternal.

These two films read like patchworks of experiences best suited to another medium, imperfect translations into another language that fail to cohere into singular pieces of art working toward their own ends. That both of them are too explicit, too clumsy to be truly frightening merely presages the ways that their source material has been abused and squandered beyond comprehension.

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This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six on Friday, May 15th.