Director James Wan has gone from an anonymous, low-budget horror filmmaker to one of the most sought-after names in Hollywood. His brand was built upon the enormous success of films like Saw (2004)—his directorial debut which was disparaged by critics for ushering in the ‘torture porn’ subgenre of horror—Insidious (2011), and The Conjuring (2013), all of which spawned their own highly profitable franchises and, in the case of The Conjuring, its own cinematic universe. Wan has wielded his brand like a torch for genre fans to follow, emblazoning his name as a producer or executive producer on a number of other horror releases like Annabelle (2014), Lights Out (2016), and The Nun (2018) in order to help ignite their commercial success.
By all measures, Wan’s brand of horror sits alongside the likes of Stephen King in its present popularity among horror fans, trusted for its mostly consistent, terrifying quality. Yet, one horror film of Wan’s directorial oeuvre that’s hardly ever mentioned is arguably his best, and that’s
Dead Silence (2007).
This supernatural ventriloquism film was buried alive in the catacombs of cinema’s history by a mountain of awful reviews upon its release. Even today it holds a miserable
20% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics ridiculed Wan and his filmmaking partner Leigh Whannell (who earlier this year achieved solo acclaim for directing the 2020 remake of James Wales’ 1933 film, The Invisible Man) for poor writing, bland characters, over reliance on genre tropes, and a predictable plot twist in Dead Silence.
To make matters worse, after the release of
Insidious, Whannell posted the essay, “Dud Silence: The Hellish Experience of Making a Bad Horror Film”, to his now defunct blog, The Word in the Stone, essentially disowning Dead Silence due to a number of creative control issues he and Wan had with Universal Studios. Shunned by its critics and creators, this unwanted stepchild has nevertheless gained a loyal cult following—with me being an avid member—and deserves to be reassessed for its terrifying merit.
Dead Silence stars Ryan Kwanten of True Blood fame as its haunted protagonist, Jamie Ashen, a faithful, loving husband who returns home to find his wife murdered, her body propped under the couple’s white bed sheet like a puppet, her face a death mask of utter terror. All of this occurs after an ominous ventriloquist dummy shows up on the Ashen’s apartment doorstep from an anonymous sender. To anyone else, such a package would seem bizarre, sure, but to Jamie this dummy is a portent that he has connected to his wife’s murder, leading him on a trail back to his hometown of Ravens Fair (cue “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe) to investigate the eerie children’s tale of Mary Shaw.
This tale is full of your standard horror fare, including the discover of a creepy old spinster who had a lot of dolls when she was alive instead of a family; a foreboding residence in the loft above a long-abandoned theater; a revenge subplot concerning a small town’s dark secret; a name no one dares to speak; a ventriloquist dummy that serves as both a weapon and a symbol for its spectral owner; and most importantly, a spooky nursery rhyme. It goes like this: “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw. She had no children—only dolls. And if you see her in your dreams, be sure you never scream, or she’ll rip your tongue out at the seams.”
The only problem with this tale, as Jamie quickly learns, is that it isn’t simply a lie told to scare misbehaving children—it’s based on a brutal act that now plagues Ravens Fair. As the town’s mortician and Jamie’s father (Bob Gunton, known as the holy rolling prison warden in Shawshank Redemption) reluctantly explain, Mary Shaw (the bone-chilling Judith Roberts) was a ventriloquist-in-residence at the town’s theater. She was lynched by a mob of locals for allegedly kidnapping and murdering a child. Since then, her ghost has h(a)unted the men of the town, killing off them and their families one by one.
Shaw has her eyes set on Jamie now, for the Ashen family is the last one left. Oh, and the child Shaw was accused of murdering? That was Jamie’s great uncle, so the vendetta against the Ashens is even more personal than Jamie could imagined. The rest of the film follows Jamie as he exhumes the secrets of the town, of Shaw, and of their ties to his immediate living family, all the while being pursued by the hard-boiled Det. Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg in between Saw films) who is convinced Jamie murdered his wife.
As I mentioned before, Wan and Whannell have been open about the horrible experience they had making this film, and this, Whannell explains, was partially the result of the studio executives at Universal wanting the script to have fully realized “rules” for its supernatural villain. How does Shaw move? What forces restrict her? What is her modus operandi for killing? What motivates her actions?
Judith Roberts as Mary Shaw (IMDB)
This insistence on establishing “rules” for the film eventually led Universal to hire a script doctor, who made a number of changes to Whannell’s writing. You would think that these changes would’ve ironed out all of the issues with the characters, plot, and dialogue, right? Unfortunately, that was not the case. The film is riddled with laughable dialogue delivered, in all fairness, to the best of the actors’ abilities.
Henry the mortician has a couple of especially horrendous stinkers, like, “She won’t stop killing ’til the screaming does,” or, “We don’t say her name around here!” exclaimed after a dramatic gasp. If these lines don’t have you cracking up, the camp of Henry’s wife Marion, a senile old woman who pets her taxidermied raven so hard its feathers fall off, or Det. Lipton’s hyper-masculine obsession with his electric razor (which Whannell insists was not his doing) will.
Yet, despite its script troubles, Dead Silence features plenty of impressive technical work worthy of praise. Its sound design, for starters, is deeply unsettling, as Shaw’s leitmotif (a classic example being the Jaws theme song every time the shark approaches) is actually no sound at all, this being the meaning behind the film’s title. Complementing the sound design, the set boasts some visually impressive pieces, like the Guignol Theater and Shaw’s hidden doll room, that, when accented by Wan’s signature red and black color palette—which is on full display here—exude a dreadfully eerie atmosphere. Add to this the stylistically accomplished cinematography of Wan and his DP John R. Leonetti, and the film stuns with its high production values despite its floundering narrative.
The reasons to appreciate Dead Silence stretch beyond its technical achievements to the ways in which the film establishes Wan’s distinct visual style, habits, and themes as an auteur. Returning to the director’s color design, Dead Silence is his first horror film to truly showcase the breadth of his red and black palette, laying the groundwork for the haunting red hues we would later see imbuing the objects, attire, and structures of Wan’s two Insidious films.
With Dead Silence, Wan also introduces his penchant for quoting, so to speak, the iconic films of the first and second golden ages of horror cinema. For example, the final shot of the opening credit sequence zooms in on the eye of Billy, Shaw’s favorite doll, dissolving into the sink drain in Jamie’s apartment kitchen. This shot visually recreates the inverse of an infamous moment from the post-shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where a zoom in on the bathtub drain lap dissolves into a zoom out on Marion’s eye as she lay dead on the tile floor. By recalling Psycho, Wan and Leonetti not only cite a film that has clearly influenced their filmmaking but also situates Dead Silence within the greater history of horror cinema.
With just a single viewing, any keen veteran of horror film will pick out additional allusions to the Universal monster films of the 1930s, Cat People (1942), Carnival of Souls (1962), and even A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). This habit of quoting his horror influences gives Dead Silence—as well as Wan’s two Insidious and two Conjuring films—a distinctly classic aesthetic, one that critics actually embraced because they had grown tired of the found footage boom in American horror at the time.
Dead Silence also notably gave us what would be Wan’s first in a long line of spectral female villains in Mary Shaw. For anyone who has seen both Dead Silence and the first two Insidious entries, the design similarities between Shaw and the Bride in Black are impossible to miss. Both appear to be older women who wear all black Victorian dresses, have deathly pale skin, and feature haunting sunken eyes. But what distinguishes Shaw from Wan’s other female horror villains is her backstory. Unlike the Bride in Black or Michelle Crane or Bathsheba of The Conjuring, Shaw is ambiguously antagonistic, and your perspective on her motives for killing the people of Ravens Fair may actually leave you rooting for her.
On one hand, Shaw is monstrous because she killed Jamie’s great-uncle, a fact that is finally corroborated when Jamie discovers his ancestor’s corpse strung up like a marionette puppet in Shaw’s hidden doll room. That Shaw has also killed Jamie’s wife and the other families of Ravens Fair frames her as a cold-blooded murderer. Yet, on the other hand, Shaw’s story can be alternatively viewed as a rape-revenge narrative.
Shaw was lynched for what was at the time an alleged crime, but she already posed a “threat” to Ravens Fair through her lifestyle. Shaw chose her occupation as a ventriloquist over raising a family. Her children were her dolls, and her dolls were direct extensions of her career. As a successful working woman, Shaw challenged traditional gender roles of her time, giving more “reason” to the misogynist men of Ravens Fair to silence her.
Given that the psychosexual implications of having her tongue ripped out simulate a symbolic act of rape, it’s easy to sympathize with Shaw’s revenge plot against the town’s families, especially the men. Her retribution amounts to a full-fledged assault against the patriarchy, but it’s dulled by the fact that she kills indiscriminately, not just those who wronged her. This is why her ultimate success in killing Jamie and the rest of the characters cannot be wholly celebrated as a victory for women.
(Poster excerpt / IMDB)
It’s fitting that the mechanism Shaw utilizes to achieve this success, the perfect doll of Ella Ashen (Jamie’s new pretty, younger mother), is at once an empowering subversion of the male trophy wife fantasy and also a harmful embodiment of the wicked stepmother convention from fairy tales, another instance of ambiguity. Yet, it’s this ambiguity that makes Shaw’s character so much more compelling than the Bride in Black, Michelle Crane, and Bathsheba, all of whom are monstrous solely as a result of their defiance of traditional gender roles.
The final reason Dead Silence deserves more praise is that it’s just a damn good puppet horror film. Growing up, I was like many children and was terrified of ventriloquist dummies. This fear largely grew out of reading R.L. Stine’s Night of the Living Dummy (1993) chapter book in the Goosebumps series.
As a teenager, having apparently overcome my fear, I was fascinated by ventriloquist dummies and sought out horror films featuring scary puppets at every chance I got. This led me to Child’s Play (1988) and eventually Saw (2004), but I never found myself truly terrified like I had been as a child until I was invited by some friends in high school to sneak into a screening of Dead Silence at the $2 theater. Here was a possession-haunted-house-ventriloquist-doll horror film without the corny one-liners of Chucky that featured a true puppet master in Shaw orchestrating a complex revenge plot by weaponizing her dolls for mobility. I had nightmares for a week, and I’ve never seen anything that could top it since.
In short, Dead Silence is unlike anything else James Wan has made. It’s a technically well-crafted, frightening horror film that defies categorization even if its writing leaves something to be desired. It also provides a solid introduction to Wan’s distinct style, habits, and themes as one of the leading 21st century horror auteurs. If you’re like me still self-isolating during COVID-19, Dead Silence is available on streaming from Amazon Prime at the time of this writing. But you’ll want to keep your hand over your mouth. You know, just in case you scream.