- James Wan
- Ryan Kwanten, Judith Roberts, Donnie Wahlberg, Amber Valletta
- 90 min.
- Release Date
A good ghost story, the kind camp fires and sleepovers thrive on, is hard to come by these days. The last true ghost story-movie was John Carpenter’s The Fog, made back in 1980. Subsequent attempts to reclaim this subgenre have failed or simply gone too far, showing too much blood or too much of the ghost. Candyman, The Ring, The Grudge, and even The Fog’s remake failed to capture the small-scale narrative requirements on which ghost stories flourish. Dead Silence is another failed attempt at creating horror from mythos. It relies on the popular scary movie archetype where a tall-tale or urban legend is found to be true. In this case, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell conceived the story of Mary Shaw, a Victorian-era ventriloquist who haunts present-day folk with her 101 dummies. Like every good tall tale of this sort, there’s even a poem to follow Mary Shaw’s legend:
Beware the stare of Mary Shaw,
She had no children only dolls,
And if you see her in your dreams
Be sure to never ever scream.
Doesn’t exactly implant itself in your memory, does it? It’s neither scary nor catchy, and whenever people recite it in the movie, it seems awkward, as if every time the person was inventing it on the spot. But as the story goes, the ventriloquist Mary Shaw was said to have been wronged somehow; now she’s back and taking the tongues of those who scream at her presence. Why she takes tongues is one of the sillier secrets of the movie.
Enter happily married couple Jamie and Lisa, who receive a mysterious unmarked package on their doorstep with a dummy named Billy inside. The doll’s creepy eyes shift when backs are turned, which the camera is careful to point out again and again. Even though they have no idea who it’s from, Lisa sits it on the furniture as if it was her child while Jamie understandably thinks it’s unnerving. When Jamie (played by Ryan Reynolds look-alike Ryan Kwanten) returns from picking up dinner, he finds his wife dead, her tongue removed. Jamie is accused but not charged with his wife’s murder by Detective Lipton, played by Donnie Walhberg, Mark Wahlberg’s considerably less-talented brother. Dishing out the cheese, Lipton covers nearly every bad cop cliché in the book. Wahlberg’s pseudo-“Columbo” performance is dead-on; he’s just missing the glass eye and worthy detecting skills. He plays an inconsequential role in the film, not really accomplishing anything that moves the plot forward. He pops up occasionally to shoot-out detective sarcasm and severely annoy both Jamie and viewers.
Later, Jamie returns home to bury his wife and solve the mystery of her murder. On the ride there, he curiously sits Billy the dummy up in the seat of the car. As the doll exchanges hands throughout the movie, one wonders why this doll is treated with such human respect. It’s sat up on a bed, a chair, in a passenger’s car seat, in a morgue, and even against a tombstone. Why not in a locked box at the bottom of a lake, or in a wood chipper?
The director of Saw, James Wan cakes on visual style heartily enough, concentrating a little too much on his technique. Scenes are saturated black, white, and blue, giving everyone and everything a dead look to it. Furthermore, almost every scene includes a deliberate red item—be it a car, the doll’s tie or red lips, a theater curtain, etc.—to contrast the muted saturation, similar to what he did with Saw. It’s a repeated, annoying, and blatant attempt at artistic composition. (The exact same trick was used in 2006’s The Omen remake.)
Luckily, Wan avoids returning to torture porn, a subgenre that Saw popularized into box-office gold. He tries to sell a story here, something relying on fear rather than bloody gore. We realize he takes himself and his horror yarn too seriously when Mary Shaw appears in ghost form with a grotesque CGI tongue, slobbering about with all the lick-power of her victims, and expects us to be frightened instead of laughing. By the end, the story uses all the recent horror movie norms, embracing that too-often-used final twist, and of course, the last shot suggesting that the movie’s ghost gets the last laugh. Wan is clearly a director with control over his film’s look. If he could only steer that control onto a decent script…