Today, James Wan isn’t just the acclaimed genre filmmaker responsible for Saw, The Conjuring, and Malignant. Over the several last years, Wan has found success outside horror with huge hits Furious 7 and Aquaman. Somewhere in between his directorial debut Saw and the first Insidious, however, Wan struggled with two original releases in 2007. Wan’s vigilante flick Death Sentence failed to make back its budget while earning bomb reviews. And killer puppet thriller Dead Silence didn’t fare much better with critics or audiences. But horror fans have re-evaluated Dead Silence since its initial release. Critics may still not like it, but the fans have turned it into a cult hit.
One night a strange package arrives for Jamie Ashen and his pregnant wife, Lisa. Inside the wrapped box is a ventriloquist’s dummy named ‘Billy’ with no return address. Later that night Jamie returns from an errand and finds his wife dead with her tongue torn out. Though he’s a suspect in the police investigation, Jamie leaves for his hometown, Raven’s Fair, after he finds a strange note in Billy’s box. The note puts Jamie on the trail of a local legend – a long dead ventriloquist named Mary Shaw.
Dead Silence a Polished and Surprisingly Old-Fashioned Horror Movie
At the time of its release, Dead Silence found itself in horror movie market that wouldn’t have very receptive. This was a year where Torture Porn was just running out of steam as Hostel 2, I Know Who Killed Me, and The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 all fizzled. And Paranormal Activity was about to solidify found-footage as a viable subgenre years after The Blair Witch Project scared people out of cineplexes. Given his reputation as the director of Saw, James Wan’s follow-up choice seemed odd. A supernatural thriller about a killer puppet or doll seemed pretty quaint for the mid-aughts. They may have been still releasing Puppet Master movies on the straight-to-video market, but who was watching?
In spite of his contributions to Torture Porn, Wan downplays gore or slasher violence here in favour of polished atmosphere and carefully curated scares.
What’s odd about the critical hate for Dead Silence was that it is in fact something of an old-fashioned horror movie. In spite of his contributions to Torture Porn, Wan downplays gore or slasher violence here in favour of polished atmosphere and carefully curated scares. Scenes of dead bodies with horribly contorted mouths is about as gruesome as things get. On the contrary, Wan gives audiences plenty of scenes where inanimate dolls change positions with camera edits and wooden eyeballs slowly follow their next victims. Maybe Wan overstuffs his finale and follows it up with an unnecessary twist, but it’s all fun and leaves one wishing there had been a sequel.
Dead Silence Delivers a New Villain to the Horror Genre
Much of the fun that’s found in Dead Silence stems from the mythology conjured by Wan and frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell. As much as everyone enjoys the familiar, Hollywood spends an inordinate time finding ways to re-invigorate longstanding intellectual properties. Horror fans should be excited about the prospects of a new Evil Dead, Elm Street, or Friday the 13th project. Nonetheless, the genre needs fresh stories and new monsters and Mary Shaw makes for a good minor horror villain. There’s a good backstory here for audiences to sink their teeth into and the exposition feels like a dark fairy tale rather than lazy exposition.
Nonetheless, the genre needs fresh stories and new monsters and Mary Shaw makes for a good minor horror villain.
Just one year after Dead Silence Ryan Kwanten (Glorious) found some success with his recurring role as Jason Stackhouse on the HBO vampire series, True Blood. As the dimwitted Jason Stackhouse, Kwanten was a consistently fun presence on that series. Here, as Jamie Ashen, Kwanten makes for something of a dull protagonist. This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Kwanten himself; he’s perfectly fine in the role. But Whannell’s (Upgrade, The Invisible Man) screenplay spends more time fleshing out its ventriloquist and dummy than the human characters. Once again playing a cop, Donne Whalberg feels like he’s just reprising his role from the Saw movies albeit a much tamer version.
Dead Silence Deserves the Cult Status It Has Achieved
While it’s not hard to understand why Dead Silence struggled to find an audience in 2007, the critical derision for Wan’s early horror movie seems misplaced. Yes, Ryan Kwanten’s ‘Jamie’ makes for an underwhelming protagonist and Donnie Whalberg plays a much less interesting version of his Saw franchise character. Wan sidelines some of the movie’s better characters. But Dead Silence boasts top-notch production values, creepy atmospherics, and plenty of fun scares. No horror filmmaker from the last 20 years or so may be as good at setting up jolts as Wan. Throw in zippy pacing alongside a good backstory for its villain and Dead Silence makes for a good popcorn horror movie.