Dead Silence

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DEAD SILENCE cleverly begins with a faux-scratched Universal Pictures logo that was used by the studio from 1928 through 1936, announcing that we are watching "A Universal Picture". While DEAD SILENCE is certainly not in the same league as its revered precursors, immediately we are being informed that this film is harkening back to a more conservative era in filmmaking during which time Universal churned out some of the most famous horror film characters ever to grace the silver screen (or iPod), namely DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. During the aforementioned years, Universal set the stage (and subsequent sequels and merchandising) for horror as a legitimate and fairly lucrative genre that infiltrated many a youngster's dreams. In retrospect, it's humorous to note that the studio printed warnings for FRANKENSTEIN's original engagement prior to the advent of MPAA ratings: "If you have a weak heart and cannot stand intense excitement or even shock, we are advising you not to see this production." But if "you like an unusual thrill, you will find it in FRANKENSTEIN." Imagine their reactions to the horror films of today. Would the audience that cringed during FRANKENSTEIN in 1931 sit still through WOLF CREEK or THE DESCENT?

Indeed, DEAD SILENCE is a film of deliberate restraint. It is long on style � and sometimes short on logic � but is ultimately a nice and welcome respite from the "all-systems-go" in-your-face goriness and brutality of director James Wan's previous SAW efforts which have helped spawn the likes of the Splat Pack's Eli Roth and his horrific HOSTEL and Alexandre Aja's THE HILLS HAVE EYES and HIGH TENSION. Wan seems to be waxing nostalgic to those halcyon pre-teenage days when getting our homework done was the most we had to worry about besides hiding from our parents the fact that we loved watching monster movies that we knew we should otherwise be avoiding.

Like "The Anatomy of Atavism" quote that precedes Jacques Tourner's CAT PEOPLE, DEAD SILENCE begins with, "In the 6th Century B.C. it was believed that the spirits of the dead would speak through the stomach region of the living." This is from the Latin word "venter" for "belly" and "loqui" for "speak", hence the word "ventriloquist".

The credits play over a mimicked SE7EN-style sequence in black-and-white (a bit of visual ventriloquism?) replete with directions on how to make the Perfect Doll, sort of a throwback to Fred Krueger's manufacturing of his finger knives.

Our protagonist Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) receives an oversized and unsolicited package with his name scribbled on it housing a ventriloquist dummy, to which his wife Lisa (Laura Regan) takes an immediate liking. Lisa is conveniently reminded of a poem that she heard as a child: "Beware the stare of Mary Shaw; she had no children, only dolls�"

When Jamie runs to the Ka Ka Lucky Seafood Barbecue Restaurant (who wouldn't buy food from a place with a name like that?), Lisa is suddenly attacked by the malevolent doll. Upon Jamie's return, Lisa seemingly calls out to him, and when he notices human blood on the floor, he discovers her under the sheets with a horrific look on her face, her mouth wide open minus her tongue. The police immediately suspect Jamie given the lack of evidence supporting a breaking-and-entering crime. Donnie Walhberg plays Detective Jim Lipton (perhaps a reference to James Lipton, the priggish host of Bravo's "Inside the Actor's Studio"?), an annoying cop whom we really don't know anything about except that he possesses an vexing habit of using his electric shaver whenever the fancy takes him, even during Jamie's interrogation. He's sort of a caricature of his turn as Eric Matthews, the cop in SAW II and SAW III, "investigating" the crime with bravado and a smug "I know that you're lying and I'll prove it" attitude that becomes more annoying to Jamie as his search for his wife's killer progresses. Jamie tells him that the dummy is responsible for the murder, and explains to him that that the town he grew up in had the theory that ventriloquist dummies are a harbinger of death (if this is true, why didn't he dispense with the dummy after he opened it?) He's free to go, and begins investigating on his own.

A return visit to the scene of the crime has Jamie discover the name of the owner of the dummy: "The Amazing Mary Shaw and Billy in Ravens Fair".

A visit to his wealthy and estranged father yields an introduction to his new and mysterious stepmother (Amber Valletta). His father Edward Ashen (Bob Gunton) exhibits sympathy for the loss of his wife, and when Jamie asks him about a poem that was recited to him as a child by his natural mother, his father doesn't know what he's talking about (a clue that should not go unnoticed by discerning audience members).

A trip to the funeral home introduces Henry Walker (Michael Fairman) the mortician and his batty wife Marion (Joan Heney) who may be the most normal person in the film! Later, Jamie stays at a motel with the dummy (silly move). After falling asleep the dummy's owner, the long-deceased Mary Shaw, appears to Jamie.

At the funeral, Jamie is accosted by Marion Walker who recites the poem about Mary Shaw and tells him to bury the doll. Later that night, after Jamie discovers the name "Billy" written on the dummy's neck, he races back to the cemetery with "Billy" and locates over 100 graves where all of Mary Shaw's dummies are buried. He places Billy back into his coffin, and wonders aloud who dug him up.

Arriving back at the motel, he's confronted in his room by Lipton who has been following him and has the dummy. Jamie reveals that he knows more than he has let on: Mary Shaw would cut out the tongue of those who screamed in her presence.

The next day Jamie confronts Marion with the dummy and demands to know what she knows. Henry confides to Jamie that when he was a boy, he attended a show at the Guignol Theater on Lost Lake that frightened him terribly. Headliner ventriloquist Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) pointed to him in the audience and her dummy was underneath her seat. He brought the dummy up to her. Another boy in the audience (Steven Taylor) loudly complained that he could see Mary's lips moving. Mary took undue offence at the young boy's pronouncement and practically sentenced him to death in front of the entire house. A week later, the boy disappeared. Mary Shaw was murdered soon after this, and the town was plagued by people murdered and their tongues removed � just like Lisa.

Jamie travels to the theater while Lipton digs up the empty doll coffins. He sees evidence that supernatural forces are at work, discovers that the missing boy's name is Michael Ashen (Jamie's great uncle), and Henry is visited by the spirit of Mary Shaw back at the funeral home and becomes her next victim.

Demanding answers, Jamie revisits his father and stepmother. His father reveals that the town killed Mary as she screamed, and they cut out her tongue. Mary sought her revenge and did likewise to the townspeople. Naturally, Lipton doesn't believe him, and follows him to the Guignol Theater where they find the corpse of Michael Ashen strung up like a puppet in addition to the 100 puppets that were supposed to be buried with Mary Shaw (she herself made up like a doll). After an encounter with a clown that is possessed by Shaw's spirit which reveals Shaw sought out Ashen, Jamie falls through an opening in the theater into a room submerged in water a la INFERNO and escapes. Lipton doesn't make it, nor does his electric razor.

Jamie races back to his father's mansion only to find that his father is a dummy operated by his stepmother, who kills Jamie and places his photo next to his wife, Lisa.

The ending is reminiscent of BURNT OFFERINGS and DEAD SILENCE is far from original (how original can a horror film really be nowadays?), but it's still a fun piece of horror cinema. The memorable score is by Charlie Clouser whose wonderful SAW scores still have yet to see the light of day as legitimate soundtrack albums. DEAD SILENCE and is available on CD.

I missed the film during its theatrical release but this DVD is touted as an unrated edition and the overall lack of gore tells me that it contains additional footage and is a version that was not submitted to the MPAA. The unrated status seems to be more hype than anything else. It feels more like a PG-13 film, lacking all of the brutality of WOLF CREEK and HIGH TENSION.

The scenes in the theater recall the best moments of Michele Soavi's STAGE FRIGHT. The notion of creating the Perfect Doll reminded me of Madame Forneau being locked in the room by her son with the "Perfect Woman" in LA RESIDENCIA. The one film that DEAD SILENCE owes its debt to is obviously DEAD OF NIGHT and the dummy sequence with Michael Redgrave. I always remember the ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS episode "The Glass Eye" with Jessica Tandy � that was really creepy � and THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode "The Dummy" with Cliff Robertson. Wan is obviously no stranger to these scary stories, and the film has an overall Herk Harvey creepiness to it.

The DVD itself has a terrific 5.1 sound mix, and has a nice effect when the ambient sounds disappear. There are some nice behind-the-scenes featurettes, though I would have liked to have had an audio commentary from Wan or Leigh Whannell to discuss the film's genesis.

If you're a confirmed coulrophobe or pediophobe beyond your normal childhood years, avoid DEAD SILENCE. Otherwise, you should find it to be a fun and creepy little film.

Reviewed by Jonathan Stryker