Thrills on ‘Silent Hill’ 

Creepy horror film; ‘The Sentinel’ stands tall.

RADHA MITCHELL: In grisly ghost story.
  • RADHA MITCHELL: In grisly ghost story.

There is nothing more creepy than an abandoned building, especially a big one, and especially in the dark. It’s like a ghost town. Something about all those open doors leading to vacant rooms can convince you that, just around the next corner, you’re going to meet the real and terrible thing that has moved in to take up the empty space there.

As such, the abandoned-building/ghost-town story has managed to build up its own small genre within the larger realm of the schlock horror film. Think: “Children of the Corn,” “House on Haunted Hill” and even sci-fi fare like “Aliens.”

The latest in this sub-genre is the new based-on-a-video-game flick “Silent Hill.” Though it does have some scares and more than a few superb visuals, its game roots tend to show after awhile.

Radha Mitchell plays Rose Da Silva, the adoptive mother of a girl named Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) who has terrifying bouts of sleepwalking in which she speaks constantly of a place called Silent Hill. After a particularly scary incident, Rose manages to find the town of Silent Hill in West Virginia, and strikes out with Sharon to try and find some answers. Come to find out, Silent Hill is a legendarily spooky ghost town, abandoned lock-stock and barrel one day in the 1960s after a fire started in the vast coal mines underneath. With the fires still burning all these years later, the town is constantly being blanketed with a fine ash. After crashing the gates to the walled-off town, Rose wipes out her Jeep, and awakens to find that Sharon has disappeared. What’s more, the road she drove in on is mysteriously cut off by a gulf of blackness.

From there, she’s off on a hunt for her daughter through the darkest recesses of the haunted town. With the help of a local cop who is also trapped in Silent Hill, they fight the horrific denizens of the town, hook up with a cult led by a prophet named Christabella (Alice Krige), and eventually come to learn the secret of why Silent Hill is damned.

In terms of the acting, the word to use here is “workmanlike.” Everybody plays their parts well, but no one ever quite breaks a sweat (with the possible excepting of character-actor Sean Bean, who plays Rose’s frantic husband). As much is to be expected from a horror film, however, where most of the characters are just meat for the grinder anyway.

This is not to say, however, that “Silent Hill” isn’t an enjoyable bit of popcorn fluff. Though the ending is a bit confusing and the big “exposition moment” a bit too comprehensive, it’s undeniably cool to look at, with a washed-out tone that perfectly fits the subject matter and an interesting take on the notion of who is a villain and who is a hero. That said, anyone who is afraid of a good bit of computer-gen’d gore might look elsewhere for entertainment (and I must warn you, some of the scenes are extremely brutal: sentient barbwire literally tearing a couple of folks apart, man-eating roaches, and a child ritualistically cooked alive on what amounts to a giant hibachi grill). For those with an iron stomach and a hankering for horror, though, “Silent Hill” might be a nice place to visit.

Despite its Swiss-cheese plot, “The Sentinel’’ benefits from tight direction and its talented leads. Chief among them is Michael Douglas, the film’s producer, playing Secret Service agent Pete Garrison. When Garrison is framed as the Secret Service mole orchestrating a presidential assassination, his protege, Secret Service agent David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland) is appointed as chief investigator and must follow where the evidence leads him.

A measure of the film’s suspense is generated by the history between these two agents: Breckinridge has long believed that Garrison and Breckinridge’s wife are having an affair. The allegation becomes understandable when you learn that Garrison is misusing his post, protecting the First Lady, Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger), as an opportunity for passionate lovemaking. The screenwriters hope to take the curse off this coupling by showing the president neglecting Sarah, while she and Garrison believe they are in love.

Garrison fails to pass a polygraph, telling us he’s an inside man, but not the sort he’s been accused of.

Initially dismayed to be saddled with rookie agent Jill Marin (Eva Longoria), Breckinridge gets over his aversion to her low-cut blouses once he realizes she’s talented and smart as a whip. Sutherland, the star of Fox television’s “24,’’ could play the misled good guy in his sleep, but here he tingles with alertness, taking nothing in the role for granted.

As for the aging Douglas, accustomed to playing a bad guy, or at least a questionable good guy, the actor remains up to that challenge. His main asset is conveying his character’s efforts to compartmentalize his guilt while attempting to survive and discover the real assassin.

The film never retreats from the cat-and-mouse chase that will draw in its viewers. Much like Denzel Washington’s “Man on Fire,’’ we see Garrison sidestepping Secret Service land mines before he must go on the run.

Director Clark Johnson increases our sense of Garrison’s isolation by washing the film in blues and greens and flushing the bronze glow from Douglas’ tanned visage.

Certain sequences leave us wanting. One of these begins with a rogue Garrison raiding his local Radio Shack for equipment. He uses the stolen goods to record telephone conversations and capture phone numbers at a telephone pole. He stays briefed on the president’s movements by acquiring the ever-changing Secret Service passwords. We understand his strategies, but the mechanics are poorly teased out.

Part of what keeps “The Sentinel’’ taut, is the difficulty of choosing who is the superior spy tracker: Garrison or Breckinridge. Their excellently portrayed characters are given slightly different sets of skills that translate into a match between masters — and, though we’re on tenterhooks, we really don’t want it to end.
— Lisa Miller



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