HCF REWIND NO. 213: DEAD SILENCE [US 2007]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 87 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Jamie Ashen and his wife Lisa receive a mysterious ventriloquist doll,’Bill’, in an unmarked package. Jamie goes to get a takeaway and returns to find Lisa dead with her tongue ripped out and Billy lying near her body. Jamie discovers that Billy belonged to Mary Shaw, a ventriloquist from his hometown of Ravens Fair, who supposedly used to rip out people’s tongues. Returning to Ravens Fair, Jamie finds his wheelchair-bound, wealthy, estranged father with a new young wife who takes care of him. After Lisa’s funeral, Jamie wanders into a cemetery and finds Shaw’s grave and those of her puppets. Marion, the mortician’s senile wife, warns him of the danger of Shaw’s puppets, and he realizes he should rebury Billy….
Dead Silence was something of a flop when it came out, and might be the least talked about of James Wan’s films, but I think it deserves re-evaluation as one of the best of the movies that have come from the popular director of Saw, The Conjuring and the Insidious movies. I should say that it has taken me until now to see it, for no particular reason except that I find ventriloquist’s dummies one of the scariest things around which has been enough several times to prevent me from putting on the DVD! In fact I don’t like dolls full stop. But ignoring my strange personal fears, Dead Silence really is an overlooked horror movie, undoubtedly the most old-fashioned of Wan’s movies, but none the worst for that. In fact, as I watched it, the whole thing seemed to me to be in part a tribute to the wonderful Mario Bava ,the ‘father of Italian horror’ . It’s a bit more low-key than is the norm for Wan, and you certainly can’t regard as pretty much any of the scares as ‘cheap’, but the film still moves very fast with not a single wasted scene. I’m certainly not saying it’s a horror classic – for a start, it’s too derivative – but it’s far better than its reputation and damned scary if you share my feelings about some of the things in it!
The film was Wan and co-writer Leigh Wannell’s follow-up to Saw, and perhaps one of the reasons for its commercial failure was that people expected another film like Saw. Wan admits he was influenced by Bava but also says he was inspired by David Lynch, though to me Dead Silence doesn’t really have much in similarity with Lynch’s work. The film had a much bigger budget than Saw but bad word seemed to spread about the movie before it was even finished – why, I don’t know – and it wasn’t screened to critics, usually a bad sign, though the filmmakers claimed it was because they didn’t want to give away the twist ending. The beginning and ending were altered just before release [the alternate ending is almost the same but adds an extra dimension that is rather effective] and one character removed by cutting out less than three minutes. For its ‘unrated’ DVD release, they added a CGI tongue to Billy and therefore to some scenes where it originally didn’t exist. If you look closely, the tongue seems to be comprised of lots of other tongues, though it doesn’t look very realistic and I wish I’d seen the theatrical cut. Incidentally, during the climax you can see Jigsaw’s Saw doll and two other famous ventriloquist’s dolls: Edgar Bergen’s doll Charlie McCarthy and Jimmy Nelson’s doll Danny O’Day.
The spooky opening music, which has just a touch of both Tubular Bells and the theme from Suspiria, and plays over images of a doll being made, sets the right mood and we then have an opening scene which really showcases Wan’s ability to frighten. Jamie and Lisa open their mysterious package and it’s as freaky looking as your typical ventriloquists’s dummy. Firstly it opens its mouth, in front of both of them, by itself. Then, when Jamie has gone out, the music on the stereo goes off, the kettle boils by itself, and something is sitting under the bedsheet! Lisa, being your typical stupid horror movie character, goes to see what it is and is dragged off the bed towards something. Jamie returns, and hearing the voice of his wife saying: “I’m in here”, goes into the bedroom to see the horrifying image of her dead body with her mouth yanked wide open and her tongue torn out. It’s a great beginning, if obviously inspired by the openings of The Ring and others, though I must say that if dummies and dolls don’t frighten you at all then you may not be scared by this film very much at all. The idea of a doll who appears in different places just chills me even thinking about it, but if you’re not like me, than it probably seems like Dead Silence is much ado about nothing. There’s a flashback to a ventriloquist’s show where the performer claims she has lost her dummy, which then turns up under a little boy’s chair. At the end, you see loads of the bloody things, just staring out at you, and I almost wanted to switch the film off.
At the very least though, most horror fans should be able to appreciate the traditional, old-school feel, though Wan’s penchant for quick shots sometimes jars with this. He loves to build up the suspense, loves to make you jump [a scene in a loft is a standout here], and has a knack for doing both – but sometimes he doesn’t give you enough time to appreciate or take in something that has happened. This is a flaw with his style, though it’s hardly fair to criticise Wan too much when it’s sadly common to modern film-making. Enough moaning though, because Dead Silence does mostly flow very well as it gradually reveals more and more about the background events that Jamie unveils while giving us plenty of creepiness along the way, from a senile old lady who knows ‘something’ to a sinister dilapidated theatre to a gorgeous atmospheric fog-strewn cemetery to the extremely disturbing idea of dead humans turned into dolls. Towards the end some CGI seems rather out of place but the climax manages to be surprisingly restrained. The film finishes with a final twist which is certainly a surprise, but sadly it’s done in exactly the same way as the ending of Saw, so much so I just had that film’s famous theme music playing in my head over the music that was actually used!
There are elements of quite a few Bava films in Dead Silence [which also seems to borrow from Darkness Falls]. The plot is reminiscent of Kill Baby, Kill, the terrifying old lady who has maybe the scariest bit in the entire fim looks just like the one in Black Sabbath, while there are actual shots and one important story element from Lisa And The Devil. This is partly reinforced by the look of the film. Up to now I thought Insidious Chapter 2 was the best looking of Wan’s films, but Dead Silence matches it. John R. Leonetti gives many scenes a distinctive blue, but sometimes mixes it with red to almost beautiful effect. A lengthy flashback in the theatre is probably the only scene shot relatively naturalistically, but the back of the performer’s head is bathed in that blue. Sadly the writing, by comparison, is sometimes a little weak, such as the Mary Show poem which goes like this:
Beware the stare of Mary Shaw. She had no children only dolls. And if you see her in your dreams, do not ever, ever scream.
Mr Krueger would be embarrassed, and it doesn’t even all rhyme, though the idea of not being able to scream, the thing one is most likely to do when being frightened, is a great one.
Humour has perhaps little place in a film like this amongst all the billowing curtains, thunder and lightning, open caskets and other classic horror elements, but Donnie Wahlberg as Detective Lipon, who suspects Jamie of killing his wife, has fun with lines like: “I’ve never arrested a dummy before”. Unfortunately Ryan Kwanten is a very bland lead though to be honest he doesn’t really have a character to play. Charlie Clouser’s score is quite restrained at times, leaving the sound effects or even just plain quiet to take over on many occasions. Perhaps the makers of Dead Silence were a bit too interested in paying homage to the past rather than cooking up something new for the present, resulting in a work which doesn’t entirely stand on its own merits, but its own merits are still considerable and the filmmaker’s love for the horror genre, its history and its cliches, is all over their film. Maybe it’s not quite Wan’s best film, but it’s certainly now my favourite.