Saturday, July 19, 2008

Movie Review: Dead Silence (2007)

On Friday I finally got around to seeing the 2007 movie Dead Silence, which had been recommended to me recently by a trusted source. If you don’t remember this one don’t feel too bad, as it was in and out of theaters pretty quickly. While it comes from the makers of the Saw films, it’s actually fairly restrained in terms of gore and carnage . . . which is one of the reasons I was excited about seeing it. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy some of the edgier stuff out there, it’s just that lately it seems like that type of material has been playing to the exclusion of everything else. So the promise of a return to old school horror was pretty enticing. Better yet the film also focused on one of my personal favorite horror motifs, the subject of ventriloquism as a vehicle for the supernatural/possession. There’s just something inherently creepy about ventriloquism, especially the image of the dummy. Consequently the material has been visited several times over the years, notably in several classic films such as Dead of Night, Devil Doll, and Magic. Given the distinguished heritage, the subject matter was a nice choice for bringing the classic feel back to mainstream horror cinema. Unfortunately, despite a noble effort, the makers of Dead Silence didn’t quite pull it off.

Things start off well enough, and the film even opens with the old Universal logo from the classic monsters era of the 30’s and 40’s. That instantly earned some major points. The film also initially has a scratchy appearance indicating it comes from a bygone age. Nice. After the opening sequence, we then shift to modern times and all that disappears in favor of a clean look in which everything is bathed in shades of blue. Color choices aside this sort of thing has been done to death in modern films, and is really just a lazy way of attempting to make a film look stylish. It was kind of neat the first time you saw it in something like Se7en or any Nine Inch Nails video, but now it’s gotta be something pretty special to make the grade. Despite this questionable visual choice, the story kicks off nicely as we’re introduced to the hero Jamie Ashen and his wife. During a rainy evening at home a mysterious package arrives at their door, containing a ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy. No note of explanation is provided and the couple shrugs it off as harmless. When Jamie runs out to get some dinner however, the dummy proves to be anything but harmless, and his wife meets with a chilling end.

The introduction of Billy is suitably creepy, and the sequence is quite effective in generating suspense. And while there are some nice makeup effects they aren’t too gruesome, thereby sticking to the intended guns of creating horror through mood. Also promising was the fact that the effects were not (seemingly) produced in a computer. Don’t get me wrong, computer effects have their place, but I have yet to see a horror film in which computer effects were scary. They just don’t cut it on that front. To enhance a visual sure, but they are no substitute for practical effects (e.g. CGI in Romero films). Given that the film was going with an over saturated, music video style look I fully expected them to come out with PC’s blazing, so I was heartened by this initial development. This was short lived.

Following the opening attack Jamie travels to his hometown of Ravens Hill, because it coincidentally has an old saying about the arrival of ventriloquist dummies foreshadowing terrible events (no I’m not making that up I swear). As it turns out, Billy belonged to a ventriloquist named Mary Shaw who ran a grand theater in the town during its early days. From this point forward Dead Silence more or less abandons Billy as the primary menace in favor of Mary Shaw, who is rendered as CGI baddie preying on the townsfolk. Not scary in the least. It feels like the filmmakers were trying to create another iconic villain as they did with Jigsaw in the Saw films, but CGI villains just don’t bring the goods. If they had stuck with Billy they might have had a shot, but Mary Shaw is not a winner. The only winning element is that when she attacks everything goes quiet, which is actually a nice (and somewhat novel) effect. Sound is a key ingredient in horror, and the Dead Silence folks deserve some credit for how they employ sound (and the lack thereof) here.

Adding to the problems of a computerized baddie is that many of the key locations are also rendered in CGI, particularly the theater which acts as Mary Shaw’s lair. Let me tell you there’s nothing creepier than a CGI rendered theater! Well okay, there are a LOT of things creepier than a CGI rendered theater, but Team Dead Silence apparently was not deterred by that fact. Is there even such a thing in Hollywood as a location scout anymore? I mean how hard would it be to find an actual, dilapidated theater out there in the world?!? The CGI theater is pretty and all, but it felt like I was watching a video game. And while I do like video games, I’m not too keen on crossing them into the world of cinema unless they are called TRON. If they come out with Dead Silence for the Nintendo Wii I’ll be sure to check it out, but until then I will not be waiting on pins and needles for Dead Silence 2.

And speaking of lifeless renderings, the film is also hindered by the lackluster performance of leading man Ryan Kwanten. For a guy who has just lost his wife and come under siege by a CGI ventriloquist, he shows a surprising lack of concern. In fact, he is totally upstaged by Donnie Wahlberg in a supporting role as the wisecracking cop on his trail. Not to take anything away from Wahlberg, but I would submit to you that there’s trouble afoot when your lead actor is outdone by a former New Kid on the Block. Perhaps the effects work prevalent throughout the film took the front seat from the word go, and little attention was paid to identifying solid actors (Wahlberg incredibly excluded) to carry the dramatic load. The problem is that Dead Silence is being sold as a return to classic horror, rather than a digital fireworks show. With that in mind you absolutely have to have a dynamic presence at the center, and Kwanten just doesn’t rise to the occasion. Truly they should’ve let Wahlberg have a crack at it!

Dead Silence isn’t the worst horror film of late by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one of the more disappointing ones. It’s a little more painful when you see the seeds of a good idea get crushed through poor choices. The story has potential, and the intentions are good, but it seems that somewhere along the way things got off track. Unless you’re absolutely riveted by the subject matter (as I am), or the President of the Donnie Wahlberg Fan Club, I’d say you can safely skip it. You’d be far better served by checking out one of the classic ventriloquist horror films. My personal favorite is the late 70’s film Magic with Anthony Hopkins. It’s still the creepiest, and manages to be surprisingly touching. Plus it has the most unsettling dummy of them all. The theatrical trailer for Magic (included on the excellent Dark Sky special edition DVD) is even more successful than Dead Silence at generating chills!

2 comments:

John Kenneth Muir said...

Jim:

I've been loving your reviews here, of Dead Silence and other films.

Where did you find The Gong Show Movie? Is it available on DVD?

I've never seen it, but now I think I have to...

How was Seagal night?

Jim Blanton said...

Thanks John! And glad to hear you're intrigued by The Gong Show Movie. I don't think there's ever been a DVD release alas - I caught it via a taped cable broadcast. I would love to see it released on DVD by a company like Criterion, as it would make for some fascinating supplemental material. It's just the kind of quirky thing they sometimes go for on the cult film front.

As for Seagal night it was absolutely superior . . . how could it be otherwise : ) And the aikido demo and guest vocal appearance by Vern were of course a lot of fun (and enlightening).

Speaking of great reviews, I loved the review of Tarzan the Ape Man you recently put up on your blog (see link on the left folks). That is one of my all-time favorite bad films. It's another one of those interesting oddities. As you mention it has wonderful photography, and clearly a good deal of energy was put into it. But Bo Derek is truly one of the worst actresses ever, and she found a kindred spirit in Miles O'Keefe.

The worst problem is that the film is just boring (those slow motion action sequences are excrutiating). And I also agree with you on the unfortunate wardrobe of Richard Harris in the opening minutes of the film. I remember what a stink the movie caused during its release, as folks were claiming it tarnished the Tarzan heritage . . . maybe they were right. Still if you want the serious stuff see Greystoke, this one is totally for B-movie fans : )