I’ve played horror video games so scary they aged me beyond my years. I’ve watched horror movies so scary they had me hiding under a blanket like a child. But I’ve never seen a horror movie based on a video game that’s made me do either, and that’s a shame.
Gamers who love horror have no shortage of terrific titles to play. Meanwhile, horror cinema is experiencing yet another golden age, the likes we haven’t seen since the early 80s. Films like Get Out, The VVitch, and It Follows have proven that audiences are as hungry as ever for stylish, smart scares on their screens. It seems like these two mediums should be living together in perfect harmony by now, doesn’t it?
Mediocre movies based on video games are as prevalent as ever, but the horror genre is largely untouched these days. Horror-flavored game adaptations had their heyday in the mid-2000s. And what a heyday it was! Younger readers may not remember—and older readers may try to forget—the heady days when audiences were subjected to the work of director Uwe Boll. He snatched up game properties to adapt and convinced name-brand actors to star in them while we all shook our heads and wondered where he got the money. (Thanks to a loophole in German tax laws, Boll managed to essentially secure financing for films at half the cost.)
Far Cry, Postal, BloodRayne, Alone in the Dark, The House of the Dead: once upon a time, no game was safe from becoming a Uwe Boll movie. The finished products often bore little resemblance to the source material beyond the title and character names, however. Boll simply did whatever he wanted, fans and critics be damned (or boxed). Underwater knife fights, unbelievably long, narrated text crawls, Tara Reid playing a science-ologist...nothing was off-limits. Boll’s films would be so bad they’re great if they weren’t so, well, bad. Despite the ample gore and occasional inspired shot, they’re more boring than anything else. There’s more dialogue than action and the dialogue is awful resulting in an “minutes of fun suckitude to minutes of sucky suckitude” ratio of about 1:30.
Perhaps the most baffling decision he ever made was to include actual footage from light gun shooter House of the Dead during this sequence from the film of the same name:
I’ve tried time and again to wrap my mind around that scene to have it make any sense and I never get any closer to an answer. Was it to remind us that the movie is based on a game? Is it supposed to make the scene “feel” like the game? Because it doesn’t! But it does succeed at one thing: bringing to mind the brilliant (or, at least, brilliantly fun) first-person sequence in 2005's movie Doom.
Doom, the movie, was a big, dumb action-horror movie very typical to the era that birthed it, filled with character with nicknames like “Reaper” and “Destroyer.” Mind you, the game series—while deservedly beloved—doesn’t always rise above “Doom Guy make monsters go boom,” either. In fact, that’s often what makes Doom so much fun, and it’s what this sequence in the film gets exactly right. Reaper, one of the marines tasked with cleaning up a nasty demon invasion at a Mars research facility, is fatally wounded. Before he bleeds out, he’s injected with a serum that gives him superhuman strength. At that moment, the film’s perspective switches to first-person, and the audience rides along with Reaper on his rampage. Blood and bullets fly, heavy metal music rages, and for five minutes it’s like a live-action shooter.
It doesn’t make much sense from a narrative point of view, but who cares? It’s unexpected, ridiculous, and completely awesome.
One of the central concerns that must be addressed when adapting a game (or any other material) for the screen is how much to keep and how much to throw away. As mentioned, Uwe Boll keeps very little. This is also the approach that Paul W.S. Anderson took with the 2002 film Resident Evil, which bears very little resemblance to the iconic game series. I remember walking out of the theater after seeing it for the first time and thinking, “Okay, I didn’t hate that, but who were all of those people?”
While later films in the franchise hew a wee bit closer to established Resident Evil lore, at least character-wise, the initial outing in particular saw Anderson doing his own thing. There were the familiar zombies and zombie dogs, sure, but then there was also a little girl made out of computer. The action is overly familiar, the characters are paper-thin, and it’s too self-serious to be over-the-top fun. As a Resident Evil film it’s a disappointment, and as a horror movie it’s not great. But it does feature a man getting cut up into little bits by lasers, which was all the rage at the time. So that’s something.
Zombie maestro George A. Romero was initially tagged to helm a Resident Evil live-action adaptation. Romero watched an assistant play through the first game and he adhered very closely to the story while writing his script, even including a Plant 42 sequence. The script is available to read online. It pains me to say it, but it’s easy to see why Capcom and Sony passed on it.
The changes Romero did make were too out there for series canon: Chris Redfield is no longer a member of S.T.A.R.S. (Romero’s Redfield is a nature-loving Native American tracker), Chris and Jill Valentine are romantically linked, and S.T.A.R.S. is an Umbrella organization, just to name but a few. The dialogue is full of clichés and it reads more like checking off scenes on a Resident Evil checklist than it does a fully-formed narrative. At E3 in 1999, Capcom producer Yoshiki Okamoto put it bluntly but fairly: “His script wasn’t good, so Romero was fired.”
Arguably the one film that gets it right—well, rightest, anyway—is Silent Hill. When I walked out of the theater after seeing this one, I was riding high! It was frequently pandering...uh, I mean very gratifying to me as a Silent Hill fan. Director Christophe Gans used disorienting camera angles pulled straight from the game and wisely used much of Akira Yamaoka’s haunting, iconic score.
However, the movie is too game-like to completely succeed on its own. The plot is all but incomprehensible for a Silent Hill neophyte, and it’s presented poorly. Exposition is delivered in large, dull chunks in between scenes of monsters doing stuff for some reason. It feels like much of the bloated two-hour run time consists of characters yelling each others’ names. To the seasoned Silent Hill fan, of course, all of the nonsense makes sense and the film nails the atmosphere and essence of the games. Yeah, Dahlia and Pyramid Head are both attractive (if horrifying and gross) in this iteration and the nurses come off like a sexy dance troupe, but hey, that’s Hollywood for you.
Horror video games work best when the player is completely immersed. Games can tap into something primal within us, making our palms sweat and our hearts beat faster, an experience unparalleled in any other medium. Movies can absolutely induce nightmares, but while watching, there’s always a layer of removal between the audience and the action. The very best games eradicate this barrier and make it feel like the horrors are happening to you. Still, I want to believe that there’s a perfect melding of the two out there in the ether, waiting to be made real—one that uses the elements that make a game successful in service to a good, smart horror movie. You never know, maybe it’ll feature Tara Reid as a science-ologist! The world is a wondrous place.