Portable horror best played with headphones
When filmmaker Gore Verbinski re-shot Hideo Nakata’s J-horror sensation The Ring, a great deal of nuance was lost in the translation. Sure, the Hollywood update was sufficiently creepy, but the original's subtle sense of urban dread didn’t make the cross-Pacific flight. Similar diffusive forces are at work in Silent Hill: Origins, the first American-made chapter in a long-running Japanese survival-horror series. The plot follows a trucker, Travis Grady, who begins a descent into insanity after rescuing a young girl from a fire. After his heroic deed, he wakes in Silent Hill—a town cloaked in fog and overrun with walking nightmares. Grady must search for answers and escape from the purgatory of Silent Hill, which is now isolated from civilization (and reality) by huge, crumbling rifts in the earth.
While most games crib from genre hits like Star Wars and Aliens, Silent Hill’s creators haven’t been shy about their devotion to David Lynch. The game’s sleepy Pacific Northwest setting parrots the suburbia-gone-bad vibe of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. But it’s Lost Highway—and the film’s obsession with fugue states—that truly informs the Silent Hill games. Their protagonists suffer a kind of amnesia, holding only the most tenuous grasps on their identities.
It’s a gaming trope that borders on cliche. An empty vessel is always easier for players to pour themselves into. But the trick works especially well in a dreamy survival-horror setting. When characters glance into mirrors they stray further from sanity, warping from the askew Silent Hill to a truly hellish alternate view of the world, where everything is coated by sanguine rust. Lynch’s tendency toward the Freudian dovetails nicely with the video-game milieu, but in Silent Hill: Origins it feels like we’ve wandered one step too far from the source material. The cultural echo chamber between Japan and America has absorbed much of the psychological substance behind the nightmare.
Still, that sense of otherness that has always graced the Silent Hill games remains intact, thanks to Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack. His atmospheric compositions, like Brian Eno channeled through Merzbow, provide an aural backbone to the series. Much of the dread conjured by Silent Hill: Origins is delivered directly into the ears. The industrial thump of unseen machinery, the dire shuffling of hunched monstrosities and the game’s signature air-raid siren transmit a lingering terror still potent enough to penetrate the spine.