Jan 3, 2013


In this column, movies with less-than-stellar reputations are fairly and objectively defended. Full disclaimer establishes that said movies aren’t perfect, and aren’t close to being such, but contain an undeniable amount of worth that begs you for a second chance. Films chosen are based on their general reception by both critics and audiences, more often than not falling into the negative. Every film, no matter how dismal, has at least one good quality. As they say, it ain’t that bad. 

Spoilers abound.

I suppose it was inevitable. I've mentioned James Wans' Dead Silence more than once, and always in a positive light. But now it's time to fully defend what I would never consider to be a "great" movie, but one I find myself revisiting fairly often, especially late at night when it's not quite ready to retire.

People love Saw. I will not begrudge that. It is easy to show enthusiasm for low budget horror that manages to be original (it was) and effective (well...some parts). I would not call Saw a legitimately good film, but will say it showed the promise of co-writer/director Wan. Luckily Wan's sophomore project allowed him to team up with Saw co-writer Leigh Whannell for an attempt at a hat trick success with both audiences and at the box office. I'm always pleased when first-time directors strike it big with a horror film and opt to stay in the genre. And Universal Studios, thestudio that really brought horror to life with all the classic movie monsters, were enthusiastic about the duo's approach in resurrecting the golden era of the horror genre with their tale of witchcraft, ventriloquism, and old drippy mansions. They even used the original Universal Studios opening logo, establishing the idea behind the film immediately. 

Strange that the studio would then get cold feet after reading the script and demand the duo insert a bit of violence and an OCD, electric-shaver-using cop (played by Donnie Wahlberg), all because sound (and the slow disappearance of) becomes a reoccurring gimmick. If you see enough films, it becomes easy to tell when one deviates from its intended form into studio meddling. Generally things become lame and corny, and endings become unbelievably happy/resolved. While you can kind of sense all that in Dead Silence, in my opinion (obviously) it never becomes distracting. 

Uh oh, I'm rambling.

Ryan Kwanten (Red Hill, "True Blood") plays Jamie Ashen, who lives in a charming city row-home with his pixie-haired wife, Lisa. All seems well, and the couple is very much in love. Once Billy shows up outside their front door, however, it all comes crashing down. Lisa is killed by this mysterious visitor and Jamie finds himself following the trail of her killer. 

Billy, by the way, is this guy:

Dead Silence respectfully rides the long-tattered coattails of films like Magic, and before that, 1945's Brit import Dead of Night, an anthology film whose dummy-dedicated segment is definitely the creepiest. Wan and Co. know that, outside of the Full Moon brand, living/killer dummies is a largely underutilized storytelling device. Therefore, Dead Silence's intended focus was originally on mood and atmosphere over violence, and while that largely remains, the bits of violence crammed back feel foreign at times. And the mood and atmosphere in Dead Silence is gorgeously haunting. Halloween enthusiasts will find a lot to love about the mysterious Raven's Fair, home of the Ashen family, as well as murderous puppeteer Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts). Fog comes standard and rolls across graveyard grounds as if it were alive. Even during the day the sky looks dark and foreboding. And then there's the playhouse, set by itself on an island surrounded by a mile of water. Even the scummy motel where Jamie takes residence after arriving in town is brought to eerie life by the neon lights that cast their colorful glows through the swaying curtains. All of Raven's Fair feels like it was designed and constructed to do nothing but unnerve those who enter. 

I love myths. I love back stories and towns with a secret. It's the reason why I love The Blair Witch Project, and Stephen King's unofficial Castlerock series. I love this idea of a town's residents smiling fake smiles and pretending all is well, but living day in and day out with a murderous secret. And Dead Silence has that down in spades. The origin of Mary Shaw is explained, as are the events which led to her death at the hands of Raven's Fair residents. And again, like The Blair Witch Project, actual thought went into establishing this back story. 

Kwanten does a satisfactory job of carrying the film, and doing his best to help legitimize a bunch of killer dummies running around ripping out tongues. It's nice to see him play a rather understated role, as most familiar with him are more accustomed to his Florida trash, misogynistic "True Blood" Lothario. Really, Dead Silence has a pretty commendable ensemble of supporting actors, boasting both Bob Gunton (most famous for playing the warden in The Shawshank Redemption) and Michael Fairman (Mulholland Dr, "Sons of Anarchy"). Gunton's performance as Jamie's father, Edward, is...off-putting and not quite there, which, if you've seen the film, is obviously by design. Fairman as Henry Walker, the local mortician, is the exact opposite: frantic, scared, and all over the place. He knows damn well what the citizens of Raven's Fair did to Mary Shaw, and he knows the descendants of those involved are dying one by one under mysterious circumstances. 

While we're talking about actors, we need to mention Judith Roberts as Mary Shaw. She is a big creep. Even before she's a blue-tinted grinning ghost, she's still a big creep. Wan and Whannell love creepy old women. This and Insidious proves that. And they are right to, because old women are creepy simply because they're not supposed to be. They're supposed to be pleasant and meek and quiet. They're supposed to give you garish sweaters for Christmas and listen to Frankie Avalon. They're not supposed to be murderous or evil. They're not supposed to rip you apart for uttering a single word.

Former NIN member Charlie Clouser has been scoring films for a decade now, his most notable work pre-Dead Silence being Saw, in which his extremely memorable track "Hello, Zep" (which would go on to become Saw's signature theme) helped to really sell that film's otherwise ludicrous twist ending. A scene that became more far-fetched the more you thought about it was instead turned into an effectively blocked and directed moment, capable of causing chills in the audience. For Dead Silence, he also travels back in time in creating his score. Filled with classic strings and piano, but also complemented with his signature electronic dynamism the results are certainly one of the most memorable main themes in recent history. There's Gothic, and then there's Gothic, and then there is this score.

I love Dead Silence. As someone who appreciates old fashioned horror and drippy atmosphere, it scratches all the right itches. It's not perfect, but hell, what is?


  1. I couldn't agree more plus I think it's great for a younger generation looking to get into horror movies. There's really not much gore, there's no sex, not drug use, and the language isn't too bad. I think it's a perfect starting place. It kind of reminds me of those "Goosebumps" books from the 90's. I don't think anyone ever died in those stories, but if you made like a hardcore version of "Goosebumps" where people (including children) actually DID die, that's Dead Silence to me.

  2. Appreciate your approach to these reviews. We throw babies out with bathwater all the time, but there are many dimensions to films. On balance, many films are praiseworthy for what they get right. We should spend time finding reasons to enjoy films rather than ruin the experience for ourselves over minor quibbles. I posted a comment on your review of Amityville 4 today, which I bought in the hope of overlooking some made-for-TV hokum in the hope of being surprised. It's probably dreck, but my point remains - we should approach films with the right attitude.

    1. Well said! Thanks for taking the time to read and respond.