They call it the ‘sophomore slump’. It’s a phrase reserved for any artist/filmmaker/musician that follows up an initial success with a decidedly underwhelming second project. In the realm of the motion picture, a perfect example would be Richard Kelly. In 2001, he concocted a little science fiction freakout named Donnie Darko. It’s tale of time travel and suburban foreboding struck a chord with disenfranchised and alienated teens everywhere, and while not a major box office hit, it found a massive audience when it was release on home video. There was even a director’s cut DVD. Yet his second film, the still unreleased Southland Tales, was met with unmitigated hatred when it premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. From “unwatchable” to “a work of wounded hubris”, the outright rejection from audiences has held up any major theatrical play dates (it’s now tentatively scheduled for March 2008!).
James Wan was a little luckier than that. His Dead Silence only took four years from conception to release, and instead of blatantly burying the Australian filmmaker’s second major fright film, Universal actually gave it a massive mainstream roll out (over 1800 screens). Critics responded like they do for most horror films - i.e. they dismissed it outright without much analytical thought - and the film flopped. Of course, it didn’t help matters much that the publicity department kept stressing for director’s connection to the name-making Saw. The two movies couldn’t have been more dissimilar in tone, concept or execution.
Wan, along with writing partner Leigh Whannell, did indeed make waves in 2003 with their Sundance smash about a pair of unrelated individuals trapped in a booby-trapped bathroom, and the warped serial killer named Jigsaw who controlled their fate. Literally unknown, the pair became major macabre players thanks to the title’s cult-like success. A popular precursor to what is now called ‘torture porn’, the otherwise solid psychological thriller became an even bigger horror franchise, spawning two sequels so far (a third is on the drawing board). Whannell stayed on to guide the scripts, while his partner planned his next foray behind the lens. It turned out this old fashioned groovy Gothic ghost story was the proposed production.
For this film, Wan and Whannell developed a ghoulish female ventriloquist named Mary Shaw, and borrowing a bit from A Nightmare on Elm Street, gave her a fatalistic backstory involving child murder and citizenry revenge. Jumping forward to the present, we are introduced to Jamie Ashen, who has just lost his wife to a hideous murder. On the same night that he received one of Shaw’s demonic dummies, his spouse Lisa had her tongue ripped from her mouth. Returning to Raven’s Fair, the town he grew up in, Jamie uncovers the truth about the murdered performer and her bevy of disturbing dolls. He also confronts his cold and distant father over the clan’s connection to her crimes. When the detective investigating Lisa’s death shows up to keep his eye on Jamie, they are both tossed into an unnerving cycle of restless spirits and supernatural revenge.
While it is true that Dead Silence is nothing like Saw, it is also a fact that it’s far from a failure. Indeed, if you take the movie on its own, unusual terms, it ends up being an effective and suspenseful spook show. Now, there are a couple of elements you have to buy into in order to thoroughly enjoy this film. First and foremost, you have to believe that ventriloquist dummies are inherently frightening. Seeing them, sitting there, human-like eyes staring at you, burying their gaze directly down into your soul - this has to send several unsettled shivers right along your stone cold spine. If that doesn’t happen, or you haven’t built up enough gruesome goodwill after seeing Magic, The Great Gabbo, Devil Doll, or Dead of Night, then much of what Wan wants to do just won’t work. While it references other fright flicks – especially those of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento – it’s a premise that can be problematic.
The second issue has already been mentioned. Without giving too much away, Mary Shaw is a kind of sideshow Freddy Krueger. She killed children, but for reasons less sexually repugnant than our bad guy burn victim in a green and red sweater. Still, their origins are very analogous, and the whole nursery rhyme angle really seals the similarities. This will cause many fans to have a ‘been there, done that’ feeling that will cloud their potential enjoyment. It is a shame that Wan and Whannell couldn’t come up with something more original. After all, Mary Shaw has some really weird ideas about how to optimize her doll’s ‘realism’ – couldn’t that be murderous motivation enough. And since the character is played onscreen by the wonderfully enigmatic Judith Roberts, an actress capable of inciting fear with a simple look, you don’t need much more than dementia to direct your dread.
Those two elements aside, Dead Silence is a sensational looking film. Wan has lost known of his Saw-inspired directorial flair – he merely applies it in a much more controlled and colorful manner. This is a movie loaded with atmosphere and mood, where fog fills the woods and buildings practically breathe under the weight of their own disquieting ambience. Wan went all out to make Raven’s Fair the most menacing ghost-town in training since Collinsport and Collinwood withered under the residency of their namesake’s Dark Shadows. Especially eerie is the setting for the film’s finale, the decrepit old Guignol Theater. Since we also get to see it in its heyday, the transformation from showplace to sinister is truly bone chilling. But nothing can top the extremely disconcerting corpses in this film. Shaw’s murderous modus – pulling out people’s tongues - leaves horrific visages of dead bodies with their mouths unhinged and hacked open. Either in full view or suggestion, it’s potent paranormal stuff.
There are aspects to this movie that don’t quite gel, however. It seems that anyone who had just experienced the death of their spouse would want nothing to do with the doll at the center of the slaying, as well as the various unholy locales associated with it. Secondly, Wan and Whannell drop a couple of interesting subplots (the mortician’s crazy wife, the problems between Jamie and his distant dad) in favor of more moody walks through gloom drenched ruins. There is also something a tad artificial about Wan’s overall aesthetic approach. The movie looks great, but he relies on repetitive shots (cars traveling along superimposed maps) and specific framing devices (all buildings are composited head on and symmetrical) to drive the narrative. The acting is excellent all around, but we never find ourselves emotionally involved in the fate of our hero. Our attention is turned a little too much on how all this is going to turn out.
The answer is both satisfying…and a little sick. Wan and Whannell indeed save the best for last here, answering several questions (and raising a couple) with a conclusion that builds on almost everything we’ve seen before. It wraps up the film in a nice, nasty little bow, and quells any concerns that our pair couldn’t pull this off. Still, it’s strange that the final version (the unrated DVD adds some extra elements that really help establish the horror) didn’t connect with audiences. It’s the same kind of mood-oriented spine-tingler that 1408 has ridden all the way to the bank. Maybe it’s the two tenuous facets mentioned before. It could be that fans of Saw weren’t interested in something old school and subtle. Perhaps March is just a bad time to forward a fright flick. Whatever the case, Wan has survived. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next feature, a Death Wish inspired vigilante drama entitled Death Sentence (starring Kevin Bacon). Still, for fans looking for an alternative to all the blood and guts gumming up the current genre trappings, give this excellent effort a try. It’s an amazingly winning little creepshow.