The horror genre seems to be at a crossroads these days. Following the whole post-modern “Scream” cycle, the long haired ghosts from Japan and the final deluge of bind, torture, and kill films initiated by the release of “Saw”, there seems to be a clear confusion as to where to go next. Normally, the next trick up the sleeve is to mix and match the various popular subgenres in the hopes of shaking up a Molotov cocktail of scares that seem new but are really very old. This usually amounts to putting lipstick on a corpse. Grandpop may look fresh, but he’s dead inside.
This was clearly the problem facing James Wan and Leigh Whannell when contemplating their first “Saw”-less feature film. Originally titled, “Shhhh”, “Dead Silence” takes a different route. It brings everything in the genre back to zero in what seems like a desperate attempt to hit the reset button. Wan and Whannell’s new film is not going to reinvent the genre, but it’s not supposed to be anything but what it is: an old fashioned ghost story. It’s actually a big pile of nonsense, but that doesn’t stop it from being fun nonetheless.
Part of that fun comes from the filmmakers’ desire to just get things going immediately. Not two minutes have passed when the mysterious doll “Billy 53” is delivered to the front door of Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) and his wife Lisa (Laura Regan). Much less weirded out than you or I would be, Lisa jokes about the town the two of them came from, Ravensfair, where they grew up in fear of some oddball local legend involving “Mary Shaw” the ventriloquist. Jamie’s reaction is to go out and get them some Chinese food. Needless to say, Jamie never sees Lisa alive again. Alone with the doll, Lisa is the first to witness first hand the paranormal effects of the “dead silence” and has her tongue cut out.
Despite being suspected of murder by cranky detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), Jamie takes off for Ravensfair, a town that has to be seen to be believed. It’s clearly a “Silent Hill” influenced ghost town, and is meant to be completely irrational. The production design is so wild it seems like someone raided Tim Burton’s garage and threw everything together regardless of scale. The town looks like some kind of old Amusement pier with buildings pushed too close together and boarded up. There seems to be no more than four people living in this otherwise deserted town. There are no restaurants and no convenience stores. There is, however, an undertaker and his Miss Havisham mad wife, and a motel with an unseen proprietor. Just how a motel stays open for business with no tourists and why an undertaker is needed in a town of no living people is not explained.
Jamie is in town to both bury his wife and also to find out the truth about her death. He drives straight to his Wayne Manor like estate and has words with his wheelchair bound father (Bob Gunton) and his new young wife Ella (Amber Valletta). Words to the effect that he’s “going to get to the bottom of this.” The dialogue here is about as good as the writing in “Saw”. The filmmakers should stick to lines like, “Arghhhhh!!!!” when someone is getting a fishhook in the nostril.
“Dead Silence” seems to wade in the water for the second act, with Jamie trying to get rid of the fiendish doll and find out what it was that happened to the town and Mary Shaw herself so many years ago. Predictably, he doesn’t find out much until a proper feature length is in sight. Once Wan and Whannell can see the shore from the water, they move a little too quickly to drop anchor. “Dead Silence” goes from a slow bore to a sudden onslaught of plot machinations and character revelations, all amid the usual sound and fury of ghostly attacks.
Ryan Kwanten does his best to hide his Aussie accent and commit to some kind of horror movie motivation, but he’s really too bland to carry the film. Luckily, he’s joined by Donnie Wahlberg, who is aging in a very good way for a character actor. He’s looking a little bit like Warren Oates circa “The Wild Bunch”, and in a few years should some madman attempt a remake of “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”, Donnie is definitely the right man for the job.
The rest of the film is not so much a story as a series of events that unfold. The backstory has No surprises and I didn’t expect it to, since the classic ghost story has such a traditional form. It all ends with the kind of twist that is both pretty damn satisfying and somewhat annoying for its lack of logic, and the failure of the filmmakers to exploit its premise. But once again, this is not an example of exemplary dramaturgy and is not why the film is interesting.
“Dead Silence” has a screenplay that is as important to its success as the list of random scenes Mario Bava called a screenplay for “Kill, Baby, Kill!” Wan is no Bava, but he’s better than Christophe Gans, who failed miserably trying to create an atmosphere in “Silent Hill” by waving his arms and jumping up and down. Wan is actually quite effective in creating disturbing images, and makes particularly strong use of the soundtrack. It’s no secret that sound is the key to all great horror and the concept of the film revolves around sound itself.
Whenever the ghost of Mary Shaw approaches, her arrival is heralded by the slow removal of sound in the scene, one sound effect at a time. This is a great cinematic technique, almost DePalma-esque in its commentary on filmmaking. What’s left on the track is what would be the normal ambient sound from the shoot itself, before all the fancy 5.1 Skywalker Ranch effects are laid in to create atmosphere. The idea to disturb audiences by removing the atmosphere is nothing short of brilliant.
But this idea is not one that emerged from a vacuum. As the film unfolded, I slowly realized what must’ve been the most important influence on the filmmakers: Mario Bava’s 1964 horror anthology, “Black Sabbath”. This was a trilogy of terror and a stylistic tour de force for the Italian maestro to show off his skills with a ghost story, a giallo-type thriller, and a longer form gothic vampire story. I have no doubt that Wan and Whannell know this movie well, and based much of the imagery and sound design of “Dead Silence” on that film’s opening story, “The Drop of Water”.
“The Drop of Water” is a standard ghost story that features a dead old woman obsessed with the occult, who comes back from the dead to wreak a peculiarly auditory kind of vengeance. The story once again is nothing, and Bava is everything. When I say “dead old woman” I am using mere words to describe something so incredibly frightening there are no words for it. Suffice to say that the dead woman’s facial expression is unforgettable and almost doll like — a terrifying grimace of frozen horror and death.
Wan applies the ideas of “Water” to Mary Shaw, in that she asked to “become” a doll upon her death, and is seen with a ghoulish expression at all times. In “Water”, the ghost doesn’t just return without any fanfare; her victim is subject to a series of ghostly manifestations of sound, from the buzzing of a fly, to a record player that starts up suddenly. But it’s the “Drop of Water” that finally brings the deathly spirit. A series of echoed drips that build in intensity. In “Dead Silence” Wan has the drop of water slowly lower in intensity until it becomes eerily silent.
Bava is the primary influence, but there are many others that make up the smorgasbord, from “The Twilight Zone” to the signature fog banks of Hammer Films and the more classical style of Universal’s black and white monster movies. In fact, the film opens up with the old Universal logo from the days of “The Wolf Man” and this gets us right in the mood for something more classical. For the most part they succeed in creating a decent late night horror flick, but do not advance the genre at all. Given the studio “gift” of a healthy R rating, the filmmakers could’ve expanded the horizon and increased the backstory’s depravity much like how Richard Matheson energized the haunted house tale with perversion in his classic novel, “Hell House”.
Whannell and Wan also miss an opportunity to play with the eroticism and sexuality inherent in their weird story. This would’ve really made the film’s final twist much more powerful and perverse. Perhaps a bit battered and bruised by their first “Studio” picture, Wan and Whannell do deserve credit for what they did achieve with “Dead Silence”. It provides a few decent scares, some great atmosphere, is not a remake of a ’70s classic or a Japanese original, and does not feature rooms that are deadly torture traps. But now that they’ve effectively returned to basics, it’s time to start inventing again.
James Wan (director) / Leigh Whannell (screenplay), James Wan, Leigh Whannell (story)
CAST: Ryan Kwanten … Jamie Ashen
Amber Valletta … Ella Ashen
Donnie Wahlberg … Det. Jim Lipton
Michael Fairman … Henry Walker
Joan Heney … Marion Walker
Bob Gunton … Edward Ashen
Laura Regan … Lisa Ashen
Dmitry Chepovetsky … Richard Walker