Director: James Wan
Producer: Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman, Oren Koules
Writers: Leigh Whannel, James Wan
Stars: Ryan Kwanten, Donnie Wahlberg, Judith Roberts, Michael Fairman
Oh, honey! You adopted us a baby!
Lisa’s (Laura Regan) kidding, of course, but her reaction still strikes me as admirably serene. Her husband, Jamie (Ryan Kwanten), has just received and opened an anonymous gift—if you can call it that—a ventriloquist’s dummy bearing the name “Billy.” I suppose a ventriloquist’s dummy would be a rather ominous arrival regardless, but it doesn’t help that Billy isn’t exactly the cheery sort. His skin is a mottled gray, his eyes are thickly ringed in black, his lips are an unnatural bloodred, and he has a vampire’s deep widow’s peak. When Lisa sets him down, his mouth gapes of its own accord.
Jamie is rightly unsettled from the start, and his fears are quickly validated. That night, Lisa suffers a gruesome death. When Jamie finds her bloody corpse, there is no doubt in his mind as to the culprit, but, of course, the local cop assigned to his case (Donnie Wahlberg—and no, disappointingly, he never performs a single “New Kids” hit) finds his theory difficult to believe. Luckily, Jamie—like every horror protagonist wracked with motivating grief and rage—is driven to uncover the mystery himself, piecing together clue after clue in his hometown, Raven’s Fair. There, he gets to the bottom of the town’s oldest folktale, that of Mary Shaw, “who had no children, only dolls.” Mary may be long buried, but her “children” are out to play … and they won’t stop until the townsfolk are as mute as the dead woman herself …
DEAD SILENCE (2007) is James Wan’s brainchild, and obviously. Several of Wan’s much-admired signatures are present here—most obviously, the grisly hag as the villain and a distinctive hyperreal element to each shot. DEAD SILENCE is an early hit, following SAW (2004) but preceding blockbusters INSIDIOUS (2010) and THE CONJURING (2013). While it bears similarities to both, DEAD SILENCE most clearly prefigures INSIDIOUS. The story has the same kids of twists and turns—in the beginning of both films, the viewer seems to be able to safely guess the mystery that the protagonist will unfold. In INSIDIOUS, Dalton’s condition seems like a straightforward demonic possession; in DEAD SILENCE, the dummy is obviously haunted. And while viewers aren’t quite wrong, the horrors that Wan has dreamed up contort and expand as the hours tick by, and it hits us again: things are not entirely what they seem. In both films, too, Wan’s style is apparent. The camera whizzes between shots rapidly—and not quite steadily—a signature that has now been adapted by other horror filmmakers, perhaps for the dizzying unpleasantness that it invokes as the viewer beholds yet another nasty surprise. Wan, too, showcases his own intelligence in DEAD SILENCE, slyly slipping into what seems an average horror creepfest a meta lesson on film itself.
SPOILER ALERT: IMPORTANT PLOT DETAILS ARE REVEALED IN THE FOLLOWING PORTION OF THE REVIEW.
I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you that Billy is animated by his “mother”—as he refers to her onstage—Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts). Jamie discovers Billy’s ghost when, upon returning to Raven’s Fair, he calls upon his father (Bob Gunton) (a wealthy aristocrat who; surprise, surprise; Jamie hates … this is a point of nearly unbearable cliché in the film; has any wealthy young man onscreen not hated his father?). His father confides in him that Mary Shaw continues to haunt Raven’s Fair because, during her heyday in the 1940s—you know, when vaudeville was in vogue and not fodder for cheesy horror flicks—she was murdered. Later, Henry Walker (Michael Fairman), the local undertaker, elaborates, recalling when Shaw’s psychological instability, which by now has become apparent, reached a head. During one of Shaw’s performances with Billy, a little boy heckled her. The boy subsequently disappeared, the villagers rightly blamed Mary Shaw, and they promptly butchered her, removing her tongue as a special punishment for the horrors her ventriloquism had prompted. The killings of present-day—including Lisa’s murder—are her own vengeance. Lisa, like a myriad of victims in the past, had her tongue removed in a similar fashion. Mary Shaw seeks not to kill—she seeks to silence.
The emphasis on silence in DEAD SILENCE, much like in HUSH (2016), serves to remind the viewer what sound lends cinema. Diegetic sound—or, sound that exists “in the frame,” aside from music and other inorganic sound effects—isn’t just another way of creating realism. It’s bustle. It’s distraction. We may not consciously notice the ticking of the grandfather clock that sits behind the protagonist, the chirp of birds when she steps outside, the hum of the motor as she drives her car—but these sounds buffer the action, reassure us (in the context of horror) that all is not disaster. Such a lack is all the more frightful.
In DEAD SILENCE, before there is a death, there is silence. Ticking clocks are mute. Footsteps muffle. A screaming teapot steams silently. This moment beforehand may be more terrifying than the murder itself, which the viewer never witnesses. It prefigures Mary Shaw’s sinister wish and it prefigures death itself—the period of dreadful voiceless-ness which we all ultimately reach.
Average. The corpses are disgusting, to be sure, but we only see them in brief glimpses. This isn’t so much a film about gore as it is about terror.
If you aren’t thoroughly dismayed by Billy alone, much less his 99 siblings and deranged mommy, you may be desensitized to the point of psychic cauterization.
James Wan is a master at this, if you ask me.
Watching DEAD SILENCE while I was babysitting after the kids went to sleep was not my wisest choice.
It’s no masterpiece. A lot of the acting is unconvincing, and Wan relies on jump scares and special effects too heavily for this to be considered masterful horror. However, DEAD SILENCE was terrifying, and incredibly entertaining and fun in the way that Wan’s horror so often is.
I watched DEAD SILENCE on Netflix (instant stream), for free with a subscription. You can also rent DEAD SILENCE on iTunes or YouTube, each starting at $2.99. You can purchase your own copy of DEAD SILENCE on DVD at Barnes & Noble for $12.99 ($11.85 online) or used on the B&N Marketplace, starting at $1.99.