Three years ago the creators of Saw shook up the horror/thriller genre with their sadistic ideas of torture and pain. With sequels now happening on an annual basis, the genre won’t be the same for some time to come. But are Saw sequels all that Leigh Whannell and James Wan are capable of putting out, or is there more to their twisted minds than self-righteous torture? With Dead Silence they offer a different kind of horror flick – one closer to the movies most people are used to – but one that still separates them from 90% of other studio ground horror flicks out there.
Whannell and Wan waste no time getting into the story for Dead Silence. Overly cute couple Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) and Lisa Ashen (Laura Regan) are repairing their small apartment and trying to figure out plans for dinner when a mysterious package shows up containing a ventriloquist dummy. Considering the town they grew up in has an old myth (with an accompanying poem) about an old ventriloquist woman and her dolls, the two are a little spooked but don’t think nearly enough about it. Jamie goes out to pick up some take-out (the solution to their dinner problem) and Ella is murdered. This leaves Jamie as the prime suspect, although he’s certain her murder is tied to the doll, leading him on a trip back home to clear his name and find out the truth behind the doll and the child’s tale of Mary Shaw.
On the surface level, Dead Silence is almost identical to the “PG-13” thrillers we get far too frequently like Darkness Falls, right down to the childhood myth which is tied to the supernatural threat of the story. In fact, the basic advertised premise of this movie – the scary ventriloquist doll – is straight out of an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and not one of the good episodes in the later years when the show finally had its act together. I’m talking a Season One episode when the show barely had any legs (“The Puppet Show” for those not geeky enough to get the Buffy reference). However, there are definitely some things Dead Silence does right to separate it from the rest, making it rise a little above some of the absolute crap out there.
First of all, the threat is much more clearly defined than excrement like Darkness Falls. Here we have a creepy dead ventriloquist lady. Just the fact that we are permitted to actually see her without the camera shaking violently is a step above. Then there’s the threat that accompanies her: if you scream, she kills you by tearing out your tongue. Very creepy, leading to some excellent gore (for those that enjoy that sort of thing) which actually ties into the woman’s story – people with their tongues ripped out kind of look like ventriloquist dummies.
That level of gore is where the movie really rises above. This isn’t the cookie cutter story of a bunch of teens being terrorized by the specter of the month (like last year’s Stay Alive, whose Countess bears a slight resemblance to Mary Shaw of this film). This is the story of one man trying to find out who killed his wife and why. That means the film isn’t trying to appeal to a teenage crowd and delivers an “R” rating instead of the insanely popular “PG-13”. While the film doesn’t go to great lengths to make it a hard “R,” there is enough blood splattering and ripped open mouths to deserve the higher rating. The gore is more realistic than the over the top deliveries of some movies, which also probably contributes to the “R”. I wouldn’t have immediately connected this film with the creators of Saw if I hadn’t seen their names attached though. That’s how different this flick is from Jigsaw’s antics, although I swear I saw a cameo from his doll in one scene, and Saw II and III’s Donnie Wahlberg does appear in a supporting role.
Instead of strict blood, guts, and torture, Dead Silence builds its atmosphere using very Gothic images and a faded palette of colors. Everything is dismal and murky, with crumbling landscapes of formerly impressive architectures. Mist permeates the atmosphere frequently, adding that nice extra ghostly effect. If one were to take the descriptions of Edgar Allen Poe and put them on screen, this is what they’d look like. It’s the one solid thing the film has going for it that never lets up. The movie just feels creepy thanks mostly to its atmosphere.
Extra note should be paid to one part of filmmaking that almost always remains invisible: sound design and editing. The film’s premise is that, when Mary shows up, normal sound goes away, so the viewer is left only hearing the sounds of breathing and noise made by the apparent victim (I assume so she can focus on their scream). This effect is created through some very interesting sound design, which removes elements of sound while still showing us the source. It’s very creepy to see lightning without thunder and the effect definitely deserves recognition. You never notice how much sound goes into a movie until it’s gone.
As a movie, Dead Silence isn’t as groundbreaking as Whannell and Wan’s previous outings. The story is nothing new. Characters still make stupid mistakes. Actors’ performances are sometimes painful. The story often refuses to connect the dots sooner than the audience does, leading to a few moments where the film plods along with the viewers already ahead of the movie. And, of course, there is still that insistence on a last minute revelation or twist, although this one isn’t half bad and won back my interest from where I had gotten ahead of the movie’s characters. All in all, this picture is better than most of the movies of this type that show up throughout the year. If you’re gong to be forced to see flicks like this show up in theaters several times a year, they should at least be like Dead Silence, offering some really strong elements to counteract the bad ones, and winding up as a mediocre, yet entertaining movie.