It’s no secret around the Pajiba offices that we’re not huge fans of the torture porn. In fact, I haven’t seen a single one of these films since the granddaddy of them all, Saw, unspooled at a theater near you over two years ago. I’ll admit this much, though: Me and the burly, tattooed-and-mustachioed fella sitting across from me smelling of tobacco and whiskey both hid behind our hands during much of the screening, praying silently for our mommies. Say what you want about this horror subgenre, but you have to admit this much at least: It often succeeds at what it’s trying to do, which is to send you scurrying to the nearest womb, so that you might crawl back in and hide from the bad man who seeks to snap your face in two at the jaw with a bear trap.
Dead Silence is the first non-Saw flick that the duo behind the franchise — James Wan (director) and Leigh Wannell (writer) — have attempted, and I suppose it’s a reflection of their growing maturity that they’ve strayed somewhat from the gratuitous ripping of flesh that has served them so well. Indeed, in the last several years, most horror films (save for the brilliantly terrifying The Descent and a couple of subversive zombie flicks) have been one of three varieties: Torture porn, J-Horror, or remakes, mostly of ’70s and ’80s slasher movies. And Dead Silence is sort of a combination of all three: It possesses Grudge-lite atmospherics and nods to the ghost-story elements; it’s the next best thing to a somber, comedy-free remake of Child’s Play; and it has a few of the expected flesh-ripping flourishes at which Wann is so adept. In fact, while watching Dead Silence, I couldn’t help feeling that the aggressive violence that plagues so much of today’s horror shows has to be expected from a generation that grew up on Pretty Hate Machine and Marilyn Manson’s “Dope Show.” (And if you think you dislike this subgenre, just wait until Chris Daughtry, Kelly Clarkson, and Carrie Underwood make their influence apparent on the next generation of filmmakers — callers at home will vote on who gets killed next, and they’ll be run over by a Ford during a cheesy Motown product-placement ditty).
I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that Dead Silence wasn’t as bad as I expected, nor as bad as is expected of a film not screened for critics, which is not to suggest that it’s good (it’s not). The biggest problem for Dead Silence, however, is that it just might be a casualty of audience expectations. While it combines the elements of those other subgenres, it’s not as eerily creepy as Takashi Shimizu’s works; it doesn’t feature any great genital-mutilation scenes; and it’s not as sexually driven, misogynistic, or as dumb as fans of Michael Bay’s remakes would want. It’s a slightly-less-than mediocre ghost story with a decent number of visuals that, I guess, are terrifying enough, if you let yourself suspend disbelief long enough to get over the fact that Dead Silence is a film about murderous, blood-thirsty ventriloquists’ dummies.
The first scenes feature a young, loving couple of questionable acting talent (Ryan Kwanten and Laura Regan) deciding what to do for dinner. A knock on the door of their apartment reveals an abandoned package with no return address: It’s the ventriloquists’ dummy you are no doubt familiar with from the adverts and movie posters. So, the husband, Jamie, heads out to pick up Chinese, leaving his wife behind to deal with the ventriloquists’ dummy, which eventually renders everything silent and beseeches her to scream, at which point the dummy rips out her tongue and kills her. It doesn’t actually look as dumb as it sounds — the tongue-ripping is done under the cover of sheet and the lasting image is reasonably gruesome, a bit like a human blow-up doll that’s taken a shotgun shell to the back of the throat.
So now we have a murder investigation, for which Jamie is the prime suspect and Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) is the lead detective on the case. Before he is arrested for the murder, however, Jamie heads back to his hometown to bury his wife and discover the source of the dummy, where he finds all sorts of mythology behind it, which necessitates a freshman-lit type explication of a silly little nursery rhyme: “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw / She had no children / Only dolls / And if you see her/ Do not scream / Or she’ll rip your tongue out / At the seam.”
So, you see, in the early 1900s, there was a ventriloquist named Mary Shaw who was suspected of killing a young boy who questioned her ventriloquism abilities. After the boy disappeared, the town rose up and tore out Shaw’s tongue and left her for dead. Per the instructions of her will, she was turned into a ventriloquists’ dummy and buried with the 101 other dummies in her care. And ever since, the people responsible for her death and their descendants have all been murdered in a similar fashion: By frenectomy gone awry.
And yeah, given the premise, it’s a testament to Wan’s directing abilities that he was able to steer Dead Silence mostly away from the unintentionally comedic and toward a film that occasionally approaches something akin to scary, though the movie’s only really successful sequence comes within the first 10 minutes. After that, it’s mostly a dull waiting game, as the myth behind Mary Shaw is slowly revealed. There are the expected gaping plot holes, numerous unanswered questions, long spells of tedium, and a lack of sufficiently sympathetic characters or anyone onscreen with any sign of higher-brain function. But if you can look past its litany of faults, it’s almost a substandard effort. But only then, if your expectations are cellar-dwelling.
And the real shame of it — especially for fans of gore — is that there aren’t enough satisfying kills to keep the audience invested in the little that actually is going on up and until the cutesy Shyamalan twist is revealed and Dead Silence wraps up like a macabre episode of “Scooby Doo.” Honestly, it’s a pitiful excuse for a horror film, but the good news for those who like self-inflicted torture is that it does leave plenty of room for the expected sequel. So be prepared for Deader Silence and The Deadest Silence of All in upcoming years.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.We're All Stars Now / In the Dope Show
Film | March 16, 2007 | Comments ()