I’m a big James Wan fan, so I was pleased to find that Dead Silence is a tremendously underrated piece of Gothic awesomeness.
From the opening sequence, illustrating the process of creating a ventriloquist’s dummy (which is FUCKING HORRIFYING and reinforced my conviction that only someone with several screws loose would be party to such an abomination), the cinematography is full of beautiful desaturated blues and greys and splashes of vivid red. The score is ominous and effective. The visual effects are a delight and never serve as a meaningless distraction from what’s going on in the scene. This is just a damn well-put-together film.
But is it scary? Well, yes. It probably helps if you hold the correct viewpoint, which is that ventriloquist’s dummies are inherently evil offenses against the very fabric of the universe, but it’s scary. Though honestly a better word might be creepy, because while the scary parts only come once in a while, the creepiness is unrelenting from the first frame to the last.
Our hero, Jamie (Ryan Kwanten), has escaped his small-town childhood to move to the Big City, only to have his childhood track him down in the form of a ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy who is delivered to his door in an unmarked package. Jamie’s wife (Laura Regan) thinks this is hilarious – for about the fifteen minutes that it takes Jamie to go get takeout and come back to a bloodbath in his apartment and a dead wife missing her tongue. This all ties in to the local legend of Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts, who is ridiculously beautiful without the cadaver makeup and amazingly terrifying in this role), a ventriloquist who died mysteriously and had all her dolls buried around her in little graves like dead children. Now she’s a ghost haunting the small town and killing off entire families, and if she catches you with your mouth open, she rips out your tongue. (This poses a particular problem for Jamie, bless him, who appears to have adenoids and as far as I can tell never closes his mouth during the entire movie.)
Needless to say, Jamie’s determination to find out who killed his wife takes him across Mary’s path pretty fast, with disastrous and not entirely predictable results.
Jamie is that rarest of horror movie heroes – the guy who, when a creepy old lady tells him what to do to stop the killing, does it immediately and without question. Unfortunately, it’s just as promptly undone by the cop (Donnie Wahlberg) following him around trying to pin his wife’s murder on him. I liked Jamie; he was sympathetic and not unintelligent, and though he shows the occasional lapse in judgment, they’re largely because he’s having a hard time believing that a ghost and a ventriloquist’s dummy are actually running around carving people up. Bob Gunton and Amber Valetta are excellent as Jamie’s estranged father and his faintly disturbing new stepmother, and Wahlberg is surprisingly watchable as the hapless New York cop who by halfway through the movie probably had just as awful a phobia of small-town America as I do.
The movie’s only real flaw was its ending. The alternate ending is on the DVD, and I’m not sure I don’t prefer that one. The ending that made it into the film is a little puzzling – it comes across as “I have spent the entire movie telling people not to do Thing X, but now I’m going to do Thing X myself for apparently no better reason than that it’s time for the movie to end,” and then the credits roll while you’re staring at the screen wondering if you missed something. The alternate end needed some editing, but maybe something halfway between would have been better.
So what’s the verdict? Despite the shakiness of the ending, I’m giving Dead Silence four stars. It’s actually more like three and three-quarters, but I’ll round up. Insidious is a better movie, but Dead Silence is a worthy precursor, and has the virtue of not containing Darth Maul.