James Wan’s Dead Silence is generally regarded as being the director’s worst horror movie, but it’s worth seeking out in spite of its flaws.
It’s funny to think there was a time when everything James Wan touched didn’t turn to box office gold. In the years between breaking out with Saw and re-invigorating the haunted house sub-genre with Insidious and The Conjuring, Wan reunited with his friend and trusted scribe Leigh Whannell to develop 2007’s Dead Silence, a horror/thriller with all the ingredients for another creepy hit. Instead, it became Wan’s worst-received scare-fest to date and failed to turn a profit, killing Universal’s hopes for a sequel. But, as much as the movie was a clear-cut misfire, it’s worth re-examining in the context of Wan’s evolution as a storyteller.
Dead Silence centers on Jamie Ashen, a young man who comes home one evening to find his partner, Lisa, dead, her tongue viciously ripped out of her mouth. He then uncovers a link between Billy, a mysterious ventriloquist doll the pair received from an anonymous sender just before Lisa’s death, and Mary Shaw, a long-dead ventriloquist and doll designer from his hometown of Raven’s Fair. Upon returning to Raven’s Fair in search of answers, Jamie discovers the dark truth about Mary Shaw and the local legends that have sprung up since her demise — legends that may be all too terrifyingly real.
In the hands of the filmmakers responsible for some of the most grotesque and hair-raising moments in mainstream horror cinema over the past two decades, one would assume a story about a wicked doll-maker seeking vengeance from beyond the grave would make for ghoulish fun. And to its credit, Dead Silence is a crackling carnival ride of a thriller, with stylish black-and-blue cinematography and a frighteningly bombastic score by Charlie Clouser that recalls his iconic main theme for the Saw movies. Sadly, it also resorts to some tired tropes (like fridging Lisa) and features pretty bland characters, as well as a twist ending that comes across as a strained attempt to one-up the infamously shocking conclusion to John Kramer/Jigsaw’s first twisted “game.”
At the same time, there’s something charming about the way Dead Silence utilizes every old-fashioned trick in the horror movie book to try and scare the bejesus out of viewers, be it devilish dolls, spooky nursery rhymes, gleefully gory death scenes, or the classic last-minute reveal that Wan would reuse to much greater effect three years after during Insidious. While the film’s jump scares and craftsmanship aren’t as refined as those in the director’s later efforts, they’re a far cry better at generating tension and a sense of atmosphere than a lot of other similar Hammer Horror-style throwbacks from the last ten to fifteen years.
Dead Silence is all the more fascinating to revisit in the present because it contains a lot of the same motifs as Wan’s movies post-2007, be they story-related (a protagonist learning disturbing secrets about their childhood), themes about parenthood, or just the visual of hollow-eyed, white as a sheet specters. The character of Mary Shaw likewise comes off feeling like a prototype for the supernatural antagonists in Wan’s subsequent thrillers, including Insidious‘ Bride in Black and The Conjuring‘s Bathsheba Sherman. Dead Silence‘s alternate ending even touches on the subject of domestic abuse, years before Whannell would explore that idea in a far more powerful and impactful way in The Invisible Man reboot.
Whannell actually disowned Dead Silence in a 2011 entry on his now-defunct personal blog titled “Dud Silence: The Hellish Experience of Making a Bad Horror Film,” claiming the movie taught him some hard lessons about working in Hollywood and indicating that production was also a bad experience for Wan. And while probably no one would argue the film represents its creatives at their finest, it’s an entertaining mess that hints at the promise they would go on to fulfill, evolving them into the more confident and mature filmmakers they are now. That alone justifies giving it a look before Wan unleashes his next original horror vision, Malignant, upon his not-so-unsuspecting audience.
Dead Silence is available to rent or buy on multiple platforms, including YouTube and Vudu.
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