Dead Silence (2007)

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 03/19/07 07:34:53

"I'm serious — this could've been a Disney film."
1 stars (Total Crap)

There’s something eerie about dolls, particularly ventriloquist’s dummies. Their faces frozen in one expression, their jaws carved open on either side of the chin — they’re like mutilated corpses made to move and speak for our amusement.

A few films over the years have capitalized on the innate creepiness of these dummies, such as the Michael Redgrave segment of 1945’s Dead of Night, or the 1978 Anthony Hopkins thriller Magic. We could’ve used another good evil-dummy film, but Dead Silence isn’t that film. It’s a convoluted ghost story in which the ghastly stillness of the dummies hardly plays a role at all.

In the first of many mistakes, the movie offers bland TV actor Ryan Kwanten as the hero, Jamie Ashen, whose wife is murdered right after a dummy is mysteriously delivered to their home. This feels like a prologue promoted to a premise, and Kwanten can’t convey the anguish of a young husband who’s just discovered his wife horribly disfigured (her mouth sliced wide open, like a dummy’s); he just goes around looking sullen. A skeptical detective (Donnie Wahlberg) pins the crime on Jamie, who hightails it to his hometown Raven’s Fair, where the dummy came from. Years ago, the spooky ventriloquist Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) held the whole town in thrall, inspiring an insipid ditty after her death: “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw/She had no children, only dolls...” That doesn’t even rhyme.

Apropos of its title, Dead Silence offers one neat trick, though director James Wan (Saw) botches it consistently. Whenever a dummy is around and something evil’s going to happen, the soundtrack runs down like a record player in a power outage, then goes completely silent. Well, almost completely. Apparently to discourage filmgoers from stampeding to the counter and complaining that the theater speakers just died, Wan gives us tiny noises and wannabe-scary strains of music. It’s a cop-out, and when there’s a jump moment, the soundtrack jerks to life with the usual “eek” cacophony. The movie begins with a vintage Universal logo, promising a thriller more old-school than new-slash, but hasn’t Wan seen any of the old Universal chillers, some of which barely even had music? They may not have dated well, but they have a stark, uncompromising quietude that Dead Silence, of all films, sorely needed.

Jamie keeps wandering around Raven’s Fair, grilling the terrified townspeople (the only one who seems to have a job is the funeral director) as well as his estranged dad (Bob Gunton) and his new trophy wife Ella (Amber Valletta). In a movie this underpopulated, we figure something’s up with Dad and Ella, though we’re not quite prepared for the goofiness of what Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell (also Saw) have in mind for them. Regardless, Wahlberg’s tough detective soon joins Jamie in town, swiftly losing his skepticism and becoming a scaredy-cat (Wahlberg, responding to the escaping Jamie with a resigned “I don’t have a full tank of gas!”, is the movie’s sole connection to entertainment). There’s a climax promising a rampage of 101 evil dummies, but Wan settles for making their eyes and heads move ominously. It’s a rotten time for the movie to go minimalist.

Dead Silence is perhaps a serviceable rental on the slowest of slow Sundays. It comes across as a conscious attempt by torture-porn gurus Wan and Whannell to break away from the laborious cruelty of the Saw series and work a different side of the horror street, but they can’t let go of their shock-cut instincts. Aside from the condition of some of the victims, the movie could easily have been PG-13 or even PG; nothing in the story demands gore, as it is an old-school ghost story at heart, but Dead Silence sometimes plays as if the filmmakers bargained with the MPAA to get an R rating rather than to avoid one, in order to keep their cred with splatter fans.

As a horror fan who scarcely blinks at cascades of fictional blood, I’m in the odd position of saying: Here’s a horror movie that didn’t need the gore. It could even have been one of those Disney thrillers of 25 years ago (like, say, 'Watcher in the Woods') with a little imaginative effort. But all Wan and Whannell know is shock-and-awe tactics. They may shock, but there’s no awe.

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