After the surprise hit of Saw, the fiendish horror/thriller from horror’s hot new things, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, things sort of went quiet there for a while and the duo didn’t really begin to get any traction on their career until Insidious in 2010. So what the hell happened during those “wilderness” years when the only memorable projects that seemed to be surfacing were producing credits on the latest Saw sequel? Well, apart from 2007’s Kevin Bacon-does-Death Wish vehicle, Death Sentence, the other film that made up this admittedly forgettable period of Wan’s filmography was Dead Silence, an ode to the ghostly horror villains of movies past. But while both Saw and Insidious both put energetic, original spins on their respective concepts, Dead Silence was content to colour well within the lines to deliver a muddled flick crammed with creepy dolls and infantile storytelling. And yet, as bland as it is – revisiting James Wan’s sophomore effort reveals many tricks, themes and visuals that curiously and amusingly portent the filmmaker’s future frights.
Young and in love couple Jamie and Lisa Ashen receive a mysterious package one day and upon opening it they discover it contains Billy, an incredibly sinister ventriloquist’s dummy who has been sent to them out of the blue. Of course, this being a horror movie, the doll seems to carry some with it that’s far more malevolent than the lingering smell of moth balls and after Jamie pops out to get takeout, Lisa is attacked by an evil force that kills her by opening up her jaw like a pez dispenser and tearing out her tongue.
Suddenly becoming a widower in the worst way, Jamie also now has to deflect the suspicious questioning of shlubby detective Jim Lipton who seems dead set on pinning Lisa’s gruesome murder on her puppy-eyed husband.
However, after getting a lead from Billy’s packaging that directs him back to his old hometown of Raven’s Fair – which, over the years has gone from a prospering place to a crumbling, grade-A shithole – Jamie meets with his estranged, ailing father and his new trophy wife, Ella and discovers that an old town legend known as Mary Shaw, may in fact be true and has targeted him for the same mouth mauling treatment as his wife.
Getting the cliff notes, Jamie finds out that Shaw was a famous ventriloquist who was humiliated on-stage by and obnoxious brat many years ago and when that kid when missing, the townsfolk (obviously learning nothing from the parents of Elm Street) killed the old lady in retribution. Of course, horror movie 101 states that mob killing a killer only makes them come back from the dead for revenge and Mary’s ghost been dilegently working through the families and relations of the residents of Raven’s Fair who was responsible for her murder – and now it’s Jamie’s turn.
So, to the casual viewer, Dead Silence usually invokes just that – silence – thanks to the fact that its neither particularly gripping or well written enough to be worthy of much more than a half interested glance as you stream it while pottering around and doing other things. However, fast forward ahead to the present day and while the movie still remains as stylishly inspid as before, those familiar with James Wan’s meteoric rise through Hollywood will recognize some interesting parallels to future projects. The first is obviously the extensive use of puppets, making Dead Silence the missing link between Billy the tricycle riding puppet from Saw and the hopelessly iconic Annabelle that went on to become the poster gal for the Conjuring franchise – in fact the dummy featured here (coincidentally also named Billy) is something of a dry run for the devil doll that lurks in the poorly guarded basement of the Warren family. Both have violent spirits act through them and the haggard visage of Mary Shaw and her random power set not only also feels like a precursor to other Conjuring villains like the Nun, not to mention the procession of villainous spooks seen in Wan and Whannell’s earlier Insidious movies. However, the most impressive bit of foreshadowing proves to be the chaotic, anything-goes tone that gathers up a bunch of other horror references and then splurged them all over the screen in an orgy of cinematic histrionics. This of course brings up memories of Wan’s most recent offering, the gloriously batshit Malignant that boasted a similar lack of anything involving restraint and it this comparison that suggests that Dead Silence was Wan’s first attempt to realise such an overblown, exaggerated, throwback style, but probably he lacked the necessary skills to pull it off properly. Still, he gives it the old college try though with a deserted theatre portrayed as a towering hulk of a gothic structure that even comes complete with a fucking moat and a truly inspired dissolve from a map to an aerial shot of a car driving down a forest road.
My point is, Wan is obviously trying, but it seems like the slightly enhanced budget he had to play with (Saw was made for virtually nothing) kind of got away from him thanks to the script coming across as hokey and the characters being so thin that if you were to place a rock on them it it could technically be classified as a paper weight.
True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten has a worrying lack of material to work with, instead relying on dashing from place to place while constantly pulling Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow worried/confused face in order to convey emotion. Elsewhere, Donnie Wahlberg essential plays the same, loud mouthed, short fused detective he played in Saw II with only the addition of a moustache to differentiate the two and everyone one else in the weirdly minimalist cast is either there to dish the deets on Krueger-esque villain Mary Shaw or facilitate the ridiculous final plot twist that’s filmed exactly like a final revelation from Jigsaw, right down to a speed up camera whirling around the guy who’s just realised he’s been supernaturally punk’d.
Oh yes, that twist… I have to admit, considering that Wan has fried our brains before with reveals of dead bodies that aren’t what they seem or murderous, mind controlling parasitic twins, the revelation that (SPOILER) not only has Jamie’s father has died a while ago but Shaw, disgused in human form has been controlling his hollowed out dead body like she would one of her ventriloquist dummies conjures more disbelieving guffaws than horrified gasps, but it’s so out there and so weakly set up that I kinda dug it in spite of itself.
Despite the occasional kick-ass shot (the wall of dolls all slowly turning to look at Jamie and Lipton one by one as their necks creak is an utter banger) Dead Silence proves to be intriguing when plotting the future course trajectory of its soon to be megastar director, but other than that, you won’t hear much of a peep.
The Wan that got away…