Regardless of the actual merits of Dead Silence, it’s a breath of fresh air to see the boys who helped create the current vogue for repellent sadistic horror with Saw (2004) do a complete about-face with an almost old-fashioned supernatural horror flick. Few things could be less like Saw than this current offering from director James Wan and coscenarist Leigh Whannell. That’s not to say that Dead Silence is a bloodless affair. It’s not. But the gore factor doesn’t extend to lingering over pain for its own sake. In fact, the killings in the film are noteworthy for their speed—terrifyingly so.
This doesn’t mean that Dead Silence is entirely successful. It’s at least a few corpses shy of the cemetery in terms of horror classics. It’s a game try, and parts of the film are very good indeed, while most of the scenes at the Guignol Theater are more than that (the flashback to 1941 verges on brilliant). The problem is that the story is too thin for the film’s 92 minutes. Chances are you’ll spot the “twist” ending long before it gets there, and if you can’t guess the mystery mastermind in the second reel, you should be drummed out of the theater. Moreover, there’s a little too much—well, all right, there’s a lot too much—of the homicidal ventriloquist doll, Billy, moving his eyes and doing other creepy things when the characters’ backs are turned. This last is a real shame, because otherwise atmosphere is the one thing that the film has going for it from beginning to end.
It offers a pretty solid story about the wrathful specter of ventriloquist Mary Shaw (played with the kind of malevolence you’d expect from Judith Roberts, who played the Whore of Babylon in 1979’s religioso exploitation nonclassic The Late Great Planet Earth) and her 101 dolls (so much creepier than Dalmatians). The problem is that the film’s revelations become transparent rather quickly, owing to a lack of characters, causing the film to rely too much on repetition. But enough carping. The truth is that I had a good time with Dead Silence from first to last—even when it wasn’t all it might have been.
Maybe it’s playing dirty pool—at least as concerns ensnaring classic horror fans—by opening your movie with the old Universal airplane logo from the 1930s, but it also takes a certain nerve to deliberately remind us of the golden age of horror films. Happily, the atmospheric credits and the opening sequence do nothing to disgrace the reference.
What truly makes the film an overall happy experience, though, is that even its improbabilities and occasional outright silly bits never evoke more than good-natured amusement. Considerations of why anyone wouldn’t be freaked out by a doll painted corpse grey, or why anyone would plop the same doll (especially after suspecting it is somehow involved in having murdered one’s wife by ripping her tongue out) in the back seat of the car rather than stow it in the trunk, just feel likeably loopy rather than stupid. Meeting hero Jamie Ashen’s (Ryan Kwanten, TV’s Summerland) invalid father (TV actor Bob Gunton) and finding he looks for all the world like the late TV “psychic” Criswell is simply charming. And do we really want to wonder what manner of folk would band together to name a town Raven’s Fair, much less support a theater named Guignol?
Sometimes the production even goes a little ‘round the bend in creepy production design, but always enjoyably so. And there’s that terrific flashback to Mary Shaw’s performance (though, God knows, if Edgar Bergen had ever taken it so to heart that someone noticed his lips were moving, he’d have had to go homicidal on most of the known world). Beyond that, there’s the fact that unlike so much modern horror, Dead Silence has a really solid third act payoff. The climactic sequences are truly effective, despite the obviousness of the tag scene that follows.
Plus, for genre fans, there are nice little nods to: Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927); Cavalcanti’s “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” episode of the omnibus Dead of Night (1945); the “Drop of Water” segment of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963); Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others (2001); and that most notorious of all demonic dolls, Don Mancini’s Chucky. That’s a lot more than horror cinema has offered us in some considerable time. Rated R for horror violence and images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke