Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Horror Violence and Images
Directed by: James Wan
Written by: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valletta, Donnie Wahlberg, Bob Gunton, Judith Roberts, Michael Fairman & Laura Regan
Hot off the heels of SAW, James Wan seemed to the next big thing in the horror genre. However, that didn’t quite take hold until 2011’s INSIDIOUS graced the big screen. Before that frightening box office hit arrived, Wan worked on three movies consecutively and DEAD SILENCE was the second of these films. Far different from Wan’s torture-porn roots of SAW, 2007’s DEAD SILENCE relied on a supernatural story and fog-laden atmosphere to deliver its scares. While the film wasn’t exactly well received upon release (garnering bad reviews from critics, mixed response from horror fans, and barely making its budget back globally), I always found the film to be fun in a ridiculous “turn your brain off and enjoy it for what it is” sort of way.
One dark and stormy night, a mysterious package arrives on the doorstep of Jamie Ashen’s apartment. Inside lies a creepy ventriloquist dummy. Like an idiot, Jamie decides to get some take-out and leave his wife alone with the puppet to keep her company. When he returns, she lies dead with her jaw split open and her tongue missing. Jamie is prime suspect number one for his wife’s murder, but thinks that something supernatural might be afoot. So, the young widower returns to his hometown of Ravens Fair to get to bottom of an old ghost story that may have something to do with his wife’s gory demise. However, doing so will also put himself and others in the path of 100 murderous dummies and a pissed off undead ventriloquist.
The best phrase that I can throw onto DEAD SILENCE is that it has atmosphere out the wazoo. The fog-laden, dank visuals give you the impression that you’re watching an old-timey ghost story from Universal’s glory days of horror. I cannot recall a single moment in this film where I saw the sun shining, but that’s a huge benefit when nearly every frame looks like a macabre painting brought to life. The acting on the other hand is much more of a mixed bag. Ryan Kwanten does an alright job in moving the story forward as Jamie, but his character seemed really bland. All we know about Jamie is that he’s upset over his wife’s murder and he also despises his crippled father. Those are the only two traits given. Kwanten is definitely better than 90% of the rest of the cast though as he’s not acting in a ridiculous over-the-top manner for most of the film. Donnie Wahlberg plays an appropriately annoying cop and mainly serves as comic relief. Some of his jokes hit, while others fall flat. Judith Roberts is enjoyable as the ghostly ventriloquist Mary Shaw. Aided by a disturbing make-up job, Roberts manages to be freaky in spite of only having a handful of lines.
The plot of DEAD SILENCE is its biggest problem though. Plot holes and silly moments make their way into the script and distract from potential scares at hand. For example, the ghost’s main motivation of “she won’t stop until the screaming does” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s a bigger mystery at hand too, but a final plot twist reaches eye-rolling levels of absurdity. While the fog-laden atmosphere, elaborate sets, and creepy moments are impressive, the film really drops the ball in terms of its CGI. However, the scares are mostly centered around a less-is-more approach. Instead the ridiculous computer effects are reserved for the final act which, although fun, is as dumb as a rock.
DEAD SILENCE gets by on the appeal of being an old-fashioned ghost story that just wants to scare you. There’s solid atmosphere throughout and quite a few scares are legitimately well executed. This horror flick falters in terms of story, characters, and bad-looking effects. This is one of those films where you have to turn off your brain to fully enjoy it. There are absurd plot holes, a ridiculous last-minute twist (probably Wan banking on his SAW reputation) and boring characters. There are also eerie sensibilities, well executed moments and a couple of solid scares. Taken as a whole, DEAD SILENCE is only okay. If you can ignore its shortcomings, then you’re likely to have fun with this creepy combination of a ghost story and an evil doll B-movie.