Dead Silence Review
Dead Silence is a very well-crafted horror movie with a fatal achilles heel. It expects its audience to be afraid of something that I doubt many people are going to find scary - a ventriloquist's dummy. I know there are those who do have that phobia - and there's already been at least one horror movie about a sinister dummy: Richard Attenborough's 1978 chiller, Magic - but when it comes to striking fear into the hearts of filmgoers, dummies aren't exactly spiders, are they? When I saw Arachnophobia at a packed weekend showing in 1991, there was a lot of screaming and the most walk-outs I've ever seen. At a moderately busy screening of Dead Silence last night, whenever the director cut to a close-up of the dummy's eyes swivelling, all I could hear from the audience was laughter.
It's a pity because Dead Silence represents a laudable attempt by Saw's writer-director James Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell to follow up their grisly smash hit with something quite different: an old-fashioned gothic horror about things that go bump in the night. It's ironic that the makers of Saw should be the ones to give horror fans a welcome change of pace after a month of Saw-inspired "torture porn". In fact the industrious Wan has another film out in late August in a totally different genre: the vigilante thriller Death Sentence, starring Kevin Bacon.
The plot of Dead Silence kicks off with a murder. The victim is Lisa Ashen (Laura Regan), the young wife of Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) and the circumstances of her death are bizarre. Jamie returns from picking up a takeaway to find his wife lying under a sheet on their bed with her tongue torn out. And just before finding her body, he hears his wife's voice calling his name.
There's one other strange detail. Earlier on the evening of the murder, Jamie received a package containing a doll - an old ventriloquist's dummy. Following the murder, he half-remembers a legend from his hometown about a ventriloquist called Mary Shaw and her dummies. Thinking there may be a connection, he decides to return home to investigate. He's followed by Detective Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), the cop on the case who suspects the young man killed his wife.
What happens next is supposed to be scary as hell. James Wan directs Dead Silence in a self-consciously atmospheric style, calling to mind the work of J-horror directors Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu in the way he uses every trick in the film-school book to spook us. Technically, the results are impressive, with striking visuals and superb use of sound. If you're looking for a movie to show off your home cinema system, you could do far worse. Incidentally, the film's title refers to the way all the noise in the background suddenly fades away when the ghost is present - a nifty effect.
Wan's efforts do occasionally bear fruit - there are some decent scenes, including a genuinely chilling sequence involving a child in a funeral home and a neat twist ending - but there's only so much the director can do with his own misconceived script. Too many of the film's central ideas are either old hat like the Blair Witch-style ventriloquist, or silly beyond belief like the possessed dummies and the creepy townspeople whose only apparent purpose in life is to speak in hushed tones about Mary Shaw.
Dead Silence is the work of an accomplished horror film-maker but at the same time, it's a parody played straight and the parody wins on points. Universally bad acting is the final nail in its coffin.