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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Dead Silence

Looking back on Dead Silence, I find it appropriate that the movie opens with the old black and white Universal Studio logo from the 1930s. This film is a throwback to when horror films were much more subtle and used silence and shadow to generate their scares. As a filmgoer who has long grown tired of horror films that rely almost solely on numerous "jump scares" where loud noises crash on the soundtrack for cheap frights, I appreciated that this film played fair and generally had a couple good creepy ideas. No one will ever mistake Dead Silence for art, the story can sometimes be very silly, and the twist that comes during the very final minute of the film doesn't hold up very well to logic. But, I also can't deny that the film is better than a lot of the stuff that's been passing for horror these days.

The film's backstory tells of a famous ventriloquist named Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts), who was supposedly responsible for the disappearance of a young local boy who heckled her during one of her performances. An angry mob seized the woman and, in an idea that I can't imagine must have ever sounded good even at the time they were doing it, tortured her by cutting out her tongue then murdered her. The story of Mary Shaw has apparently become a famous ghost story in the small town of Ravens Fair, where the dark deeds happened long ago and where the supposedly vengeful spirit of the woman haunts. Former town resident, Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten), comes home one night to discover his wife Lisa (Laura Regan) dead in their apartment with her tongue torn out of her mouth. Moments before he left his wife alone, a mysterious package containing a ventriloquist dummy was dropped off by an unknown person. Jamie remembers the scary old nursery rhyme that the children in his town used to sing about Mary Shaw, but grizzled detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) thinks Jamie is using an old ghost story to cover up his own murderous acts. Returning to his hometown of Ravens Fair, which is now virtually deserted for reasons unexplained other than the filmmakers thought a ghost town would be a scarier setting for the story, Jamie hopes to learn the truth behind the old story.

It is unfortunate that Dead Silence is being advertised as being "From the creators of Saw". While it is true that the films share the same director (James Wan) and screenwriter (Leigh Whannell), the two movies are as different as night and day. Gorehounds expecting a torture-filled bloodbath like the horror trilogy that made the filmmakers famous will be disappointed. Aside from a couple gruesome shots of corpses with their tongues removed, there is very little blood or violence to be found. This is an old fashioned-style supernatural thriller that relies almost entirely on atmosphere, mood and genuine suspense. The movie sets up some good scares by living up to the title. Instead of assaulting our ears with loud sound effects designed to make us jump in our seats or cranking up the ominous music on the soundtrack, the movie uses total silence to signal the coming of the vengeful spirit that is going on a murderous rampage. All sound around the potential victim (Thunder and lightning from outside, the ticking of a nearby clock) strangely goes completely quiet, and we can only hear the rapid breathing of the person. It's an effective tool to generate suspense, and the movie uses it well. It also knows how to not overuse this tactic so that it does not wear out its welcome with the audience. The movie also creates a suitably ominous feel with many of its locations around Ravens Fair. From dusty old performance hall theaters that hold secrets of the past to cemeteries that apparently come equipped with their own fog and smoke machines, it may all be cliched but it's all used very well in the context of the film itself.

Like a lot of movies of its type, Dead Silence loses most of its charm once the answers start coming and the mysteries start to get unraveled. There is some effectively creepy moments during the extended flashback sequence that tells the story of Mary Shaw, and it hints at some potentially interesting developments, but these are not really touched upon in a satisfying manner. Likewise, the twist that pops up literally during the last minute will certainly leave some viewers feeling either confused or just plain angry. While it's certainly unexpected, it seems forced, almost as if the filmmakers didn't want their movie to end on a high note, so they intentionally threw this last minute revelation in so that they could end the story on a more "ominous" note. Any way you slice it, it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Up until that point, Dead Silence is a mostly successful and entertaining little ghostly yarn that does what it's supposed to. It unnerves us and holds our attention just enough to make us want to see the thing to the end, no matter how silly it may sometimes seem. As is to be expected, the cast generally fill the roles well enough, but don't really leave any impression. The characters exist solely to drive the plot, or explain it. The only stand out is Donnie Wahlberg, who continues to shed his former New Kids on the Block image as the smart-mouthed detective convinced that Jamie murdered his wife. He brings a certain sort of sarcastic comic relief that seems appropriate and never forced. It's almost a shame that the movie almost entirely follows the much more bland and ordinary Jamie, since Wahlberg's character is obviously the more interesting of the two.
Dead Silence is not an entirely successful venture, but it does do a lot of things right, and it at least proves that the minds behind the Saw franchise are willing to try something different and explore other forms of horror. You go to a movie like this to be entertained and creeped out, and it delivers just enough for the film to work. How you view this movie will most likely depend on the kind of horror you enjoy. I have a feeling that adults looking for a subtle and creepy tale will be more entertained than teens looking for a scream-fest to take their girlfriends to. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, though I sincerely hope the studio doesn't try to franchise the hell out of the picture like the Saw films. This works well enough as a stand-alone film, and should remain as such.

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