Monday, October 1, 2007

Dead Silence (Universal, 2007)

My original review of this picture began like this: “This movie is going to break my heart. I like it. A lot. And it’s going to bomb. A lot.” It took in less than 18 million at the worldwide box office, a.k.a., me being right.

What’s worst was that its weaknesses, and there are two—maybe three--big ones, didn’t sink it. Its strengths did.When you see that the Universal Pictures logo that opens this movie is the version that was used in the early 1930s, you’ll know that this isn’t going to be another torture porn hunk of splatterpunk.

On a dark and stormy evening, young James Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) and his wife Lisa (Laura Regan) find outside their apartment door a large package with no return address. It contains an old ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy. Lisa thinks it’s a hoot; James is creeped out.

While he’s gone to retrieve some take out, weird stuff starts happening in the apartment—a disembodied voice whispers to Lisa and then something we can’t see attacks her. James comes home to find her dead with her tongue cut out.

He becomes the only suspect in the case. Homicide cop Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), with no solid evidence, lets him go and James takes off to his home town of Ravens Fair because he’s remembered the legend of Mary Shaw, a local ventriloquist from the 1950s who had been accused of kidnapping a child and was killed by the missing kid’s relatives. She was buried with her dolls, all 100 of them.

James interviews an old man named Henry, the town undertaker (Michael Fairman), who has a crazy wife. She hides in the cellar with her stuffed raven. James talks with his own father, Edward (Bob Gunton), with whom he has been angry for years. Ella, Edward’s new young wife (Amber Valletta) is right by the old man’s side.

It’s all just gothic as hell—old house, crumbling theater, ghosts, dead bodies that come to life, cemeteries, dolls that, whenever we stop looking at them, seem to move, and lots and lots of rain. Director James Wan (“Saw”) handles these traditional elements as if he’s seen every horror movie made in the 1930s, which I’m sure he has. His writing partner and “Saw” co-creator Leigh Whannell has snatched up as many pieces of these old movies as he can and stitched them together.

If you like those creepy old flicks, which, surprise, I do, you can have a lot of fun with “Dead Silence.” What you might not appreciate is Wan’s determination to make a film that is stylistically as unlike “Saw” as he can. Instead of the hyper kinetic camera work of that earlier film, this time everything is rock steady and framed perfectly. The camera is always in the most effective place and when it moves, it moves for a cinematic reason rather than just because jolting the camera is a post-“Blair Witch Project” horror movie cliché.


Kwantan is bland in the lead and Whalberg, who was convincingly intense in “Saw II,” is miscast here as a ‘40s style smart mouth cop. Also, the film builds to a double-whammy ending and the first whammy is ham-handedly introduced. Maybe Wan and Whannell did that on purpose to misdirect the audience into thinking that there would be only one jolt in the last reel. Whatever. It’s weak.

Inanimate objects in movies that start moving around creep me out. If that works for you, and you have a taste for gothic horror that is heavy on atmosphere and light on gore, give this one a try. But if your appetite for contemporary horror has been sharpened by “Saw” and you expect more of the same from Wan and Whannell, leave “Dead Silence” for those of us who still like that little chill that all too rarely runs down our spines.

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