Dead Silence (2007)

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“In the town where I’m from a ventriloquist dummy is a bad omen. It’s kind of a local legend—and some people believe that the dummy brings death to those around it…”

 

Director:  James Wan

Starring:  Ryan Kwanten, Donnie Wahlberg, Michael Fairman, Joan Heney, Judith Roberts, Amber Valletta, Bob Gunton, Laura Regan

Screenplay:  Leigh Wannell

 

 

 

Synopsis:  A large package is left outside the apartment of young married couple, Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) and Lisa Ashen (Laura Regan). It is found to contain a ventriloquist’s dummy; Lisa exclaims that it reminds her of a scary poem from her childhood, something about a woman named Mary Shaw. Soon afterwards, Jamie goes out to collect takeaway; when he returns, he finds splashes of blood in the hallway leading to the bedroom. He calls out for Lisa, and she answers him—but when he enters the bedroom he discovers that she has been horribly murdered, her tongue cut out and her mouth ripped into the semblance of a dummy’s mouth… For Detective Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), Jamie is the one and only suspect in his wife’s murder, and he waves away what Jamie tries to tell him about the package and the dummy. Jamie is not immediately charged, however, and he returns to the apartment. When he inspects the box in which the dummy was delivered, he discovers underneath the lining an advertisement for the ventriloquist’s act of Mary Shaw and her dummy, Billy, which mentions Ravens Fair—where Jamie and Lisa grew up. Despite being warned, Jamie leaves town for Ravens Fair, partly to arrange Lisa’s funeral, partly to investigate the strange stories about ventriloquists’ dummies that he remembers from his childhood. Returning to his large, isolated family home, Jamie discovers that his father, Edward (Bob Gunton), has remarried again, this time to the much younger Ella (Amber Valletta). Furthermore, Edward is now confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke. Long estranged from his father, Jamie has little interest in either of these facts, or Edward’s attempt at reconciliation. Instead, he asks about a poem that his mother used to recite to him when he was a child; the poem about Mary Shaw, which Lisa imperfectly remembered. Although they know what he is referring to, both Edward and Ella dismiss the poem as mere local superstition. They then offer to have a room prepared for him, but Jamie rejects the overture, taking a room at the local motel. He calls upon Henry Walker (Michael Fairman), the local undertaker, to make arrangements for Lisa; Walker tells him that her body, having been released by the police, will be arriving that night. Back at the motel, Jamie tries to get some sleep, but is disturbed first by seeming to hear Lisa’s voice—and then by a conviction that the dummy has moved by itself. He sits up with a gasp—staring in horror at an elderly woman dressed in black, who glares at him wide-eyed from behind the curtains… When he turns the lights on, however, Jamie finds everything as he left it. Meanwhile, having collected Lisa’s body, Walker conveys it into his mortuary to prepare it for burial; but when he opens the body-bag, he recoils at the sight of the mutilation of her face—which he recognises. A sobbing noise draws Walker to a small door leading to the mortuary’s basement, where his emotionally disturbed wife, Marion (Joan Heney), is crouched in the darkness, whispering that the silent time has come… After Lisa’s funeral, Jamie walks alone through the forest at the edge of the cemetery, where he catches a glimpse of an elderly woman in black. He jumps when accosted by Marion Walker, who demands to know whether he saw her kill his wife?—her, Mary Shaw…

Comments:  I’m not sure that I can condemn Dead Silence any more thoroughly than by saying that of all the ventriloquist’s dummy films I’ve seen, this is the one that scared me the least. I’m disappointed by that, but I’m also rather intrigued: how did a film that seems, at first glance, almost specifically designed to push my buttons fail so signally to do so?

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On one level the answer to that is obvious. The production woes that plagued Dead Silence, particularly at the level of the script, have been well-documented by Leigh Wannell himself. Wannell has described how, coming off the reception of Saw at the Sundance Film Festival, he and James Wan were immediately pressured into striking while the iron was hot, and getting a second film into production. This they agreed to do—although they had no idea for a second project. Trapped, Wannell finally pitched to Universal a story about a ventriloquist’s dummy and a series of killings from beyond the grave.

Universal bought the pitch (not, Wannell realised later, because they liked it so much, but simply because he and Wan were “the Saw guys”), and Wannell found himself left with the job of writing a script without a coherent story behind it, and for which he felt no particular passion. Not surprisingly, the first draft of the screenplay produced an instant flurry of “notes”—and later an imposed, anonymous script-doctor, tasked with “fixing things”. Most telling of all, however, in Wannell’s account of what went wrong, is his belated realisation that whenever he and James Wan discussed the project, it was always in terms, not of the story, but of how the film should look. These two strands of analysis sum up between them exactly what is wrong—and exactly what is right—with Dead Silence.

Various aspects of the film seem to me to be behind my lack of reaction to it. In the first place, though ventriloquists’ dummies always do unnerve me, in and of themselves, the real horror of such stories tends to lie, not in the dummies per se, but in the ambiguous relationship between dummy and ventriloquist. It is no surprise that one of the most effective and disturbing sequences in the film is a flashback to Mary Shaw and Billy performing together: a performance that concludes, not with Mary, but Billy going into an explosion of anger at the suggestion from an audience member that he isn’t “a real boy”. The brief, apparent separation between the two makes this a chilling moment.

The separation is illusory, however, with the progressive revelation that the dummies and their controller are not in conflict, but working together; very much together. What appears to be autonomy of action is merely an extension of the dummies’ normal function. The lack of ambiguity undermines their scariness.

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A much more significant issue, however, is the failure of Dead Silence to successfully tie together its “real world” aspects and its “fairy-tale” aspects. The film-makers seem to have been going for a Twin Peaks-like set-up, the idea of an isolated little town where weird is the norm; but even Twin Peaks was sufficiently connected to the outside world that the FBI began to take an interest in its doings. In contrast, the back-story of Dead Silence requires such a total divorce between reality and fantasy that they are unable in any way to meld, but instead clash against each other. The more we learn about the back-story of Mary Shaw, the history of Ravens Fair and the reason for Lisa’s death, the less sense it makes—and nothing kills engagement with a film more effectively than a constant stream of involuntary brain-protests that all begin, “Yes, but—”

And this isn’t just an indication of a failure of my powers of disbelief. Trust me, when it comes to genre films I’m willing to play along with almost anything—just so long as a film is willing, in turn, to meet me halfway by providing an internal logic. And internal logic is precisely what’s missing here.

Despite my negativity so far, there is still a lot to enjoy about Dead Silence; though it does have to be said, most of its strengths are indeed visual. The film actually opens with the old Universal logo, film grain and all, which I presume was Wan and Wannell’s way of declaring that the audience should expect something very different from Saw, something that relies upon atmosphere and scares rather than body horror. In terms of its production design and cinematography, the film does indeed have atmosphere to burn, despite the repeated intrusion of the dreaded blue filter. It is obvious that a lot of effort went into creating an eerie, Hammer-esque look, with ominous buildings, gargoyles for decorations, an overgrown cemetery and fog rolling across the deserted streets. However, the film’s over-reliance on CGI ultimately hurts it.

We’re on more solid ground with the dummy; dummies. While “Billy” does dominate the film, Dead Silence is not content with a single creepy-looking dummy, but serves up a climax featuring a nightmarish plethora of the damn things. In addition, Mary Shaw herself is an uncanny spectral presence, evoking memories of Mario Bava’s I Tre Volti Della Paura; and although the film didn’t scare me as I was expecting, it does have some unsettling visuals and effective jump-scenes.

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And in this respect, there is one more thing about Dead Silence that I really have to highlight: the silence that heralds the activities of Mary Shaw and her dummy. In a cinematic world where the lazy and annoying tactic of the REALLY!! LOUD!! NOISE!! recurs as if by compulsory legislation, this fading out of sound is wonderfully refreshing.

Dead Silence opens in the city apartment of young marrieds, Jamie and Lisa Ashen, who find outside their front door a large, rectangular, brown-paper wrapped parcel with no address on it, merely Jamie’s name. When they tear the package open, they find a hinged box containing a ventriloquist’s dummy…

…and immediately my head starts to spin, because how could you not take that as a threat? – even if you didn’t (as we will later discover is the case with Jamie and Lisa) grow up in a place where a ventriloquist’s dummy is the local equivalent of a horse’s head in your bed. But the Ashens, if disconcerted, are basically amused; Lisa in particular begins playing with the peculiar gift, waiting only until Jamie is out of the apartment to set up a practical joke, placing the dummy on their bed and draping it with a sheet.

Lisa then stops for a moment and examines her waistline in the mirror before stuffing something under her top and considering herself again; whether in immediate or future anticipation, we do not know.

Lisa is puzzled when the music she is listening to distorts and fades out; increasingly frightened when a clock stops ticking, and a boiling kettle stops whistling. In the silence, she hears what sounds like a child laughing…

Okay. I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I would be out of that apartment so fast… But Lisa thinks it’s a good idea to go and see where that laugh is coming from—even though the sound of the storm outside fades away as she does so. Nothing dissuaded, she walks up close to the covered dummy, and grasps the sheet—

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—and something rises up at her, and she is thrown violently across the room. She lands badly, and vomits blood in the doorway. A moment later, she is dragged screaming back into the bedroom…

Jamie returns to find the kettle screaming away. He calls out to Lisa as he deals with it, but she doesn’t answer. He goes looking for her—and finds instead splashes of blood. Lisa answers his frightened cry then—but the next voice that speaks isn’t hers…

He finds Lisa in the bedroom, hidden under a sheet; though not all of her…

As far as the police are concerned, or at least Detective Lipton, Lisa Ashen’s death is just one more instance of a homicidal husband, in spite of the more outré features of the case. Lipton’s partner (who appears only in this one scene, alas, despite – or because of – clearly being the brains of the outfit) points out that Jamie’s preliminary tox-screen is negative, though the full testing hasn’t yet been done; she cannot imagine anyone committing such a grotesque murder unless they were high. Lipton isn’t interested in such reasoning, and immediately begins a sneering, sarcastic interaction with the devastated Jamie—who he nevertheless releases for lack of immediate evidence.

Donnie Wahlberg’s off-kilter performance as Detective Lipton is one of Dead Silence’s real failings. It’s hard enough to take at the outset, even worse once Lipton follows Jamie to the Never-Never Land of Ravens Fair. The character does mellow a bit as events develop (or perhaps it would be more correct to say that he stops even pretending to be credible as a homicide cop); and he even has one moment that made me want to give him a sympathetic hug; but overall his mannerisms are joltingly out of place.

Now, at this stage we may not blame Lipton for brushing aside Jamie’s stumbling explanation about the dummy, but that hardly excuses his failure to collect as evidence the anonymous package that arrived only minutes before a horrifying murder was committed. Yet when Jamie returns to the apartment, there they still lie: the wrappings, the hinged box, and the dummy. Sigh.

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The opening sequence of Dead Silence is effective enough as it unfolds, but the film progresses only so far as the interview between Jamie and Lipton before everything starts to unravel. Jamie tells Lipton that where he is from, ventriloquists’ dummies are regarded as an omen of death—which rather begs the question of why, when they found one sitting on the doorstep, he and Lisa laughed!? – why, too, Jamie was perfectly comfortable going out to get takeaway, leaving Lisa alone with it?

Then there’s the matter of the imperfectly remembered poem, which Lisa recalls as, “That poem from when we were kids…that old ghost story about the woman who had all the dolls” – eventually producing, “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw…something, something…” At the time we may not realise just how big an issue this is; but retrospectively it will be perfectly clear that there is no way someone growing up where these two did could forget that poem, or not understand its significance; no way that they would laugh about being sent a ventriloquist’s dummy.

And how could they not know where it came from? Yet Jamie must investigate the box (ah, well—at least someone does) and discover a printed advertisement for, “The Amazing Mary Shaw And Billy, In Ravens Fair” before setting out for his home town: “A Quiet Place To Live” according to the sign on its outskirts (an overly cutesy joke, all things considered).

His first stop is the huge, grim mansion that was his childhood home, where he is greeted by a complete stranger, an attractive blonde woman a few years older than himself, who greets him with a hug and expresses her sympathies over Lisa—and belatedly introduces herself as his step-mother, Ella.

The estrangement between Jamie and his father is effectively complete, and Jamie’s feelings are not in the least altered by the discovery that Edward is now confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke.

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Brushing aside tentative efforts at reconciliation, and the offer of a place to stay, Jamie questions the other two about the poem, eventually dredging up three of its four lines:

Beware the stare of Mary Shaw
She had no children, only dolls
And if you see her in your dreams…

It is Ella who offers, “Be sure you never, ever scream”—but she also dismisses the poem as being anything more than something to frighten children with; with Edward agreeing that it merely a bit of small-town superstition.

Jamie meets with Henry Walker, the town’s elderly undertaker, before taking a room at the local motel—and even at this early stage, this raises a question. On Jamie’s way into Ravens Fair, we saw the town through his shocked eyes: deserted streets, business after business closed down; desolation. We appreciate that the undertaker will always be the last person to leave—but why does this town, with hardly any residents and certainly no visitors, still have an operational motel? And even if it did, would it be necessary to put the one guest in a room where the buzzing, flashing neon light is probably going to keep him awake all night?

It is hardly surprisingly that Jamie suffers from bad dreams—if they are dreams: a silencing of the neon sign, and a dripping tap in the bathroom; the sudden appearance near his bedside of the dummy; an elderly woman on the far side of the room, dressed in black, and with wide, glaring eyes…

Jamie gasps and turns on the light—and everything is as it should be.

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Meanwhile, Henry Walker begins the grim task of preparing Lisa for burial. He recoils when he sees her face—but there is recognition behind the shock…

The funeral, though sparsely attended, goes off quietly. Afterwards, Jamie walks through the overgrown grounds of the cemetery, until he glimpses a tall figure in black—who may or may not be by the unbalanced Marion Walker who, before being hustled away by her husband, asks whether Jamie saw Mary Shaw kill his wife?

Marion Walker is another of the film’s problems. Obviously mentally unstable, she is of course the one person who not only knows what’s going on, but is willing to talk about it—sort of. Here again we have a common issue with modern horror films, important information being conveyed in a way that makes it almost impossible to grasp. A garbled phone conversation, frantic whispering, gasping and sobbing, as Marion does here— It isn’t just that the person conveying the information is incoherent, it’s that often, you literally cannot understand them.

As she is being pulled away by Henry, Marion does raise her voice sufficiently that we understand her urgent plea to Jamie that he “bury the doll”. That night, he returns to the cemetery and inspects the large headstone dedicated to Mary Shaw—and the many smaller graves around it, each marked with a single name. The one marked “Billy” – the name he has just found engraved upon the dummy sent to himself and Lisa – is empty, although not for long. The reburial doesn’t seem to “take”, however…

A thoroughly shaken Jamie recoils in fear when he finds Billy sitting in his motel room—but the dummy isn’t his only unwelcome visitor, as a disgruntled Detective Lipton grills him about leaving the city and his movements since, before accusing him of “trying to destroy evidence” by burying the dummy. Alas, Jamie lacks the presence of mind to ask him why, if the dummy is evidence, he left it lying around the apartment? Instead, he makes another effort to explain about the “ghost story” involving Mary Shaw, including the warning not to scream—which the callous Lipton turns into a joke at Lisa’s expense. The detective then takes possession of Billy and retires to the room next door.

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Not to worry, though: our hardbitten professional drives off the next morning without even locking his door, allowing Jamie to take the dummy back. This time he carries it to the funeral parlour, but Henry intervenes before he can get any answers out of Marion. However, realising that Jamie isn’t going to leave it alone, Henry steels himself to tell the story of Mary Shaw…

Henry flashes back to when he was very young, when Ravens Fair was a thriving community, large enough and prosperous enough to have its own theatre, where Mary Shaw was a headlining act—and where, in fact, she lived with her dummies. On his only visit to the theatre, Henry was present for an incident in which Mary and Billy were interrupted by another boy, who declared rudely that he could see Mary’s lips moving. Mary and Billy together put the mouthy child in his place and won the audience back—but a few weeks later, the boy disappeared—and a few weeks after that, Mary Shaw was murdered… By the terms of her will, Mary’s dummies were buried with her—all one hundred and one of them—while Mary herself was physically transformed into the likeness of one of her “children”. The latter young Henry discovered for himself after sneaking one night into the forbidden precincts of his father’s mortuary…

Ever since Mary was buried, Henry continues, Ravens Fair has been the site of horrifying murders—whole families killed, their tongues cut out; yet found posed as for a portrait…

Waving aside Henry’s warnings, Jamie sets out to explore the now-crumbling Guignol Theatre, which sits upon an island in a lake, and which, after the low wooden bridge collapsed, can only be reached by boat. His exploration finally leads him into the upper reaches of the theatre, where he narrowly escapes a dangerous fall after one of the metal walkways high up over the stage threatens to give way beneath him. He persists, however, and eventually finds himself in Mary Shaw’s old living-quarters. Amongst the cobweb-covered furniture and decorations, he discovers a trunk containing old newspapers and other advertising art, and a scrapbook in which Mary Shaw kept her photographs and developed the designs of her “children”—including a design for “the perfect doll”. The book also contains clippings about the disappearance of the boy who insulted Mary and Billy, who Jamie now learns was called Michael Ashen…

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Then, suddenly, the room grows very quiet…

A brief glimpse of Mary, caught in the mirror, sends Jamie running.

Having interrupted an agitated conversation between Marion and Billy—or rather, Mary—Henry determines to rebury the dummy. First, however, he has to persuade Marion to come out from the crawl-space under the house, where she retreats when she’s upset. (If he doesn’t want her in there, why doesn’t he block the entrance off?) This time Marion doesn’t respond to his calls, and Henry has to go in after her. As he searches for her, everything goes very quiet…

Of course he has company—and he cannot stop himself from screaming. It is the last sound he will ever make… A chuckling Mary Shaw adds his tongue to the many she has collected…

Jamie confronts his father and Ella. The former confirms that the boy who disappeared, Michael Ashen, was Jamie’s great-uncle. Reluctantly, he goes on to tell the whole story of Mary Shaw, a story that Henry didn’t tell, or perhaps didn’t know…

And here we reach the point where Dead Silence falls apart in earnest. So far it has skated on its creepy visuals and the ominous gaps in its narrative, but as those gaps are filled in we find a lack of logic that becomes exasperating to the point of disengagement. The “explanation” we are offered leaves us with nothing but questions, the kind of questions that make suspension of disbelief impossible to maintain, be the viewer ever so willing.

Briefly, then, as we are not surprised to learn, a group of the townspeople, convinced that Mary Shaw was responsible for the disappearance of young Michael Ashen, lynched her—torturing her first and then, when she screamed, cutting her tongue out. Mary didn’t stay dead, however, and one by one, the men who killed her, their families, their descendants, were murdered, their tongues ripped out…

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Edward then explains that far from being a bad father, when he sent Jamie away he was trying to protect him; but Lisa’s death makes it clear that no-one is safe from Mary’s vengeance.

Yeah, okay. But—

And “but” is all I could think at this point in the film, which is full of bewildering contradictions—everything from the clash between Henry’s assertion (complete with photographic evidence) that entire families have been killed at once and Edward’s description of the victims being picked off one by one, to the fact that Jamie and Lisa spent enough time in Ravens Fair to know the “ghost story” of Mary Shaw but not enough to know about the murders, to the back-and-forth between, “No-one dares speak Mary Shaw’s name” and the poem that everyone knows and recites.

Between the lynch-mob justice, the sins-of-the-fathers scenario and the associated poem, it is very evident that Dead Silence is riffing on A Nightmare On Elm Street—but it does so without bothering to nail down the internal mythology, leading to the contradictions I’ve highlighted and leaving loose ends all over the place. For instance, you’d think the fact that Jamie is “the last of the Ashens”, the targets of Mary’s deepest enmity, would be a big deal, wouldn’t you? – yet that detail isn’t raised until it ceases to be relevant. With that revelation, however, we can only wonder why, at the outset, Lisa was killed, yet Jamie was allowed to get away.

More damagingly still, the time-frame of events is completely wrong. We’re not talking about some historical horror coming back to haunt the descendants of an original wrong, nor about a supernatural vengeance which has just begun to unfold: we’re talking about something that happened within the lifetime of the town’s residents, and which has led to murders being committed, apparently, every other week for sixty years—and yet nobody knows about it!? Henry Walker, for instance, who has lived in the town his life, inherited his father’s business, buried all the victims—and yet somehow doesn’t know the whole story?

When the killings started – before they realised it was Mary – there must have been an investigation, perhaps (in such a small town) a call for outside help—yet there’s no record of the deaths? At the beginning, surely those who felt in danger would have left town—so how is Lisa’s death the first of an “outsider”? And even if the targets of Mary’s vengeance were themselves prepared to sit still and let themselves be killed, why did they keep having children?

(For that matter, why has it taken Mary this long to get the job done? – long enough for two more generations of enemies to grow up?)

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And the townspeople who weren’t involved with the lynching and therefore not the targets of Mary’s vengeance, what did they do? Just look the other way? If they thought that “talking” would get them killed, they could only have learned that the hard way—so who did they talk to? Did the murdered people not have family or friends outside the town? Did no reporter ever ask questions, or file a story? Where are the police?

And that’s the real sticking point: we’re not in some isolated 19th century Transylvanian village here: this story started in wartime, when no American town, surely, was completely isolated, and now it’s unfolding in a world of social media, mobile phones and the internet. Somebody has to know something.

And in that respect, I would have thought, after a ritualistic murder like Lisa’s, that it would be standard (or at least sensible) police procedure to check the records for any similar crimes: an action we might fairly anticipate on the part of the obviously brainy female cop, even if it was a bit too much to expect of Detective Lipton.

Speaking of Lipton, he now intrudes himself into the Ashen house, threatening Jamie and generally being a jackass—but mostly wanting to know why Jamie dug up and removed from the cemetery Mary Shaw’s dummies, the whole one hundred and one. Lipton kindly puts his threatening on hold for a moment when Ella calls Jamie to the phone, though, allowing Jamie learn from Henry that he has proof Jamie didn’t kill Lisa. Henry asks Jamie to meet him at the theatre.

Yeah, that’s not suspicious.

Lipton makes a half-hearted effort to stop and/or arrest Jamie, but is shoved aside without much difficulty and forced to go in pursuit. Jamie has the advantage of knowing where he’s going, and so is inside the theatre by the time Lipton, torch in one hand and a rifle in the other, locates a second boat.

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Jamie hears Henry’s voice calling to him from somewhere upstairs, and finally makes his way once more to Mary’s rooms. That’s where Lipton catches up with him, offering the surprisingly sensible observation that no-one else could be there because there were only two boats outside—and being understandably taken aback when Henry’s voice speaks from the darkness ahead. The two move on, until they hear a soft voice that isn’t Henry’s…

Jamie then presses ahead alone, pausing only to warn Lipton that, whatever happens, he mustn’t scream. It is only a moment more before Lipton hurries after him, however—disguising his extreme reluctance to be alone under a truculent insistence on going first. At the end of a winding corridor the two find themselves in a large open room containing Mary Shaw’s workshop, which is full of half-completed dolls and dummies and disturbing things in jars. The nervous Lipton tosses a stray dummy over his shoulder, causing the red curtain that covers one end of the room to fall away—revealing all one hundred and one of Mary Shaw’s dummies, each in its separate case. Only one slot is empty—that, naturally, belonging to Billy.

Opposite the collection, something sits in chair, draped under another red cloth. Jamie, understandably hesitant considering the last time he pulled a sheet away from a hidden object, finally steels himself to whip the cloth away from what he and Lipton think, at first, is a doll…

It isn’t.

Jamie and Lipton are still absorbing the fact that they have found the long-lost Michael Ashen when everything goes quiet… And in their cases, the dummies turn their heads towards one of their number not confined by the cabinet, which sits in a rocking-chair amongst the shadows: a dummy designed and dressed as a clown.

Uhh-huhhh-huhhh-huhhh…

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“Mary Shaw?” calls Jamie, and the chair stops rocking. Lipton is still clinging desperately to the thought that someone – someone human – is doing all this, but Jamie is focused upon a confrontation with whatever is behind the dummy. To his demand to know why she is doing this, the clown replies a little disjointedly, first claiming it was, “To silence those who silenced me”, then adding that it is difficult to make the perfect doll: sometimes one needs to use existing parts…

And why Lisa? “Come closer and I’ll tell you,” offers the clown—and in a moment Lipton almost wins my forgiveness for his—well, for everything—as he instinctively shakes his head, trying in his new fear to hold Jamie back.

But Jamie has to know. He kneels before the clown, turning his head so that it can whisper to him, as it insists. And so Jamie learns that he was not the last Ashen: there was one more—inside Lisa

And then a grotesquely long tongue protrudes itself from the clown’s wooden jaws, leaving on Jamie’s face a sticky trail.

It is now that Mary Shaw shows herself. It is her tongue, her tongue made out of the tongues of others, replacing the one that was cut out of her mouth.

Lipton cannot help himself and blasts away at the clown; but although it shatters, it is soon evident that Mary can be wherever she wishes, amongst her dummies—while Jamie in turn realises that in order to destroy her, they have to destroy the dummies—all of them.

Lipton continues to blast away frantically with his rifle, but Jamie takes more direct and drastic action, hurling an oil-lamp at the cabinet. It erupts in flames which threaten to engulf not only the dummies but the entire theatre. The two men flee, rushing through the narrow corridors and then over that rickety metal walkway—which collapses. And as it was on the way in, it is Lipton in the lead on the way out—and, though it is not Mary Shaw who provokes him, he does scream as he falls…

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Jamie manages to pull himself back up—and finds himself face to face with Mary. With Lipton’s grim example before him, he maintains enough presence of mind not to scream, but the shock causes him to lose his grip. He plunges from the walkway and crashes through the rotten floorboards below, into the waters beneath the theatre. Struggling desperately amongst abandoned dolls and mannequins he thrashes his way to the surface and strikes out across the lake, before beginning a race against time to reach the last of Mary Shaw’s dummies: Billy, who was left with Henry Walker.

At the mortuary, however, there is no sign of Billy; only Marion, sobbing over Henry’s tongueless body. When Jamie questions her, she tells him that his father came and took the dummy—insisting upon it, even when Jamie argues that his father cannot walk and never leaves his house.

Jamie hurries away the Ashen house—and, as he enters it, all sound dies away. It is silent—except for the voices…

Dead Silence is one of that recent crop of films where I have deliberately avoided knowing too much, certain that sooner or later I’d catch up with it. In these cases, while it is possible to steer clear of the details, a general impression is usually absorbed—and in this case it wasn’t a good one. When I sat down at last to watch it, I was expecting to find myself in the always exasperating position of being scared by a film even as I realised, objectively, that it wasn’t very good. The latter prediction was fulfilled; that the former was not is a genuine disappointment.

I’ve said enough – too much? – already about the film’s narrative issues, and I won’t get into that again (although I might mention that while writing up this piece, I thought of another good half-dozen Yeah, but— objections, including the tantalising question of who, exactly, was Mary’s Shaw’s painstaking executor, who saw her wishes with regard to her dummies and her self-mutilation carried out and got her a great big grave marker to boot, when the remaining townspeople must have wanted her underground ASAP). I also found Dead Silence lacking on the acting front. The supporting cast is adequate, Donnie Wahlberg’s peculiar performance notwithstanding, but with so much of the film’s weight on him, Ryan Kwanten offers a bland performance that too often leaves the viewer guessing about Jamie’s emotions. Judith Roberts (who I know better as Judith Anna Roberts, and how splendid to see her again!) is much more effective, but the “real” Mary Shaw is with us so briefly that she doesn’t have as much opportunity as we might wish.

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But it’s the dummies who really let me down: I was expecting so much more of them than I was of the mere humans. Oh, they’re creepy enough; yet somehow they just don’t have the same  staying power, the capacity to get under your skin, as some other of their wooden brethren. Their lack of autonomy, their lack of ambiguity, takes from them much of their power to scare, and leaves them—well, just dummies.

But what Dead Silence lacks in quality it certainly makes up for in quantity, with an entire wall of dummies all capable of moving their heads and eyes. And because one hundred and one—one hundred and one!?—ventriloquists’ dummies in one place simply isn’t horrifying and disturbing enough, we have to have just one more, which – ulp! – looks like a clown.

That’s just sadistic.

And I suppose we also have to count the unfortunate Michael Ashen, who we see in flashback doing involuntary penance for his interruption of Mary and Billy by standing in for the latter.

Which makes it one hundred and three dummies—that we know about…

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This review is part of the B-Masters’ HELLO, DOLLY Roundtable.

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7 Responses to Dead Silence (2007)

  1. This is one of those movies that I’ve rewatched just because I remember it being better than it actually is, and I do think that comes down to the atmosphere/visuals and the ending, which managed to catch me off guard, despite being fairly obvious in retrospect. Everything else recedes until I’m flipping around Netflix and see Dead Silence and think, “You know, that was an okay flick…” and the cycle begins anew

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    • lyzmadness says:

      Yes, I can see how that could happen. I’ll probably enjoy it more in the future as a non-review re-watch, because I won’t be so fixated on the script flaws and can just enjoy the visuals.

      It’s funny how you misremember things, or allow a film’s reputation to displace your own judgement. (I’m watching something now that’s a lot better than I remembered, which is a pleasant surprise!)

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  2. Ray Ochitwa says:

    For some reason I don’t even remember this coming out. I probably wouldn’t have tried to see it anyways because of the Saw connection – that film is one of the few I’ve ever walked out on (not in the theater – at a friend’s house) because I couldn’t take it anymore. Not that it frightened me, it’s just that that sort of thing disturbs and repulses me, if you understand the difference. If I want to see a movie with Cary Elwes that terrifies me to the very core of my being I’ll just watch “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure” again… Too bad this film didn’t quite cut it though as it certainly sounds like they were trying to make the sort of horror film I like.

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    • lyzmadness says:

      I get the feeling it came and went quite quickly.

      The Saw films are not my sort of thing, but I imagine I’ll get around to the rest of the Wan / Wannell output eventually, it looks much more up my alley.

      Yes, I think under different production circumstances it might have been a very effective horror film—and as I said to Manuel, if you can watch it without thinking too much, you’ll probably enjoy it. 🙂

      Mind you—when I was doing some reading I found a lot of people out there willing to defend it so you may consider I’ve been a bit harsh on it.

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      • therevdd says:

        Well, between you and Scott Foy’s old review, I feel I’m not missing much here. Knowing about all the script problems, though, maybe I could just watch for the visuals and such.

        I do remember the ad campaign, making much of the Saw connection, as you might imagine…and then it abruptly dropping out of sight after it was released. Apparently for good reason.

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      • lyzmadness says:

        Certainly for the visuals.

        It isn’t surprising the film failed at first release: the studio pitched it at the Saw crowd even though Wan and Wannell were so obviously trying to distance themselves from that kind of film. But it’s found a better audience on DVD; a lot of people who saw it that way, later, seem to really like it.

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  3. Maura B says:

    You know, I actually kind of like this one. As you rightly point out, it definitely doesn’t pass the “Yes, but–” test, or even the “hey, waaaaaait a minute” test, but there are some original ideas in there that I found kind of refreshing. I do find dummies unnerving because of the idea of an animus that should be there but clearly is not, unless they’re in the hands of an operator, and even then it’s only a borrowed one, and I think I find abandoned theaters creepy for the same kinds of reasons. I thought the setpieces here were pretty well done, and I even found the ridiculous twist ending chilling (“Yes, but–” I know, I know!). Had it had more of a coherent foundation in production, or a better straight-man than the Wahlberg character, it could have been really good.

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