Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #246
Number of Views: One
Release Date: March 16, 2007
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $22,217,407
Running time: 92 minutes
Director: James Wan
Producers: Mark Burg, Oren Koules, Gregg Hoffman
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell
Story: James Wan, Leigh Whannell
Special Effects: Warren Appleby, Patrick Baxter, Glen P. Griffin, Mariko Sakata, Toby Sells, Dave Snyder
Visual Effects: Shawney Cohen, Aaron Weintraub
Cinematography: John R. Leonetti
Score: Charlie Clouser
Editor: Michael Knue
Studio: Twisted Pictures
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valletta, Donnie Wahlberg, Michael Fairman, Joan Heney, Bob Gunton, Laura Regan, Dmitry Chepovetsky, Judith Roberts, Keir Gilchrist, Steven Taylor, David Talbot, Steve Adams, Shelley Peterson, Enn Reitel, Fred Tatasciore
Suggested Audio Candy
Charlie Clouser “Dead Silence”
“Beware the stare of Mary Shaw. She had no children, only dolls. And if you see her do not scream, she’ll rip your tongue out at the seam.”
Tell me you’re not the slightest bit freaked out by dolls. As if clowns weren’t enough to chill the blood supply, these perilous puppets can turn it to liquid nitrogen if handled correctly. Chucky, you’re excused; nobody really finds you the least bit scary. I’m talking about those Grand Guignol motherfuckers, the ones long since consigned to storage in old cobweb-laden attics and free from any technological advancements, bells or whistles. The ventriloquist’s dummy, in particular, holds exactly that kind of moody appeal and Dead Silence has a real doozy in Billy.
Last Autumn, I scribed a short piece of poetry called The Uncanny Yarn of Monsieur Heureux and, at the time of writing, I hadn’t had the ominous pleasure of viewing Dead Silence. Therefore, having breathed life into a work of dark fiction so suited to its source material, I didn’t fully understand the implications. That has now changed, last night I sat down to watch James Wan’s fright-laden fable, and I did so with an added layer of context and considerable consternation. It actually brought my verse to life and afforded me more insight into my own character. I’m pleased to report that my choice was an astute one.
Wan should be familiar to every last one of us. In 2004 he inaugurated his career with Saw and hit pay dirt. The film was a solid thriller on its own and performed well enough to encourage franchising and became an annual event for the next six years as the donkey was flogged to the tune of multi-million strong box-office receipts. He followed up with woefully uneven but admirably atmospheric vigilante flick Death Sentence and Dead Silence months apart but it is this which marks his first foray into supernatural horror. This would prove a lucrative stomping ground with a brace of Insidious movies and The Conjuring making a mint and cementing him as the new master of setting a scene. Yet, Dead Silence slipped under many radars and remains in the shadows which, it just so happens, is exactly where it is most comfortable.
Wan and associate Leigh Whannell conjure up a terrifying tale which procrastinates not in introducing itself and stating its intentions. Within ten minutes we have been seduced by the visual and audible dread which laces all of the young director’s works. The story involves Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten), a shattered pawn who returns to his hometown Raven’s Fair, searching for answers as his world is torn asunder. He is under suspicion for a crime most heinous and determined to dig for Intel on the ventriloquist’s dummy which arrived via ghostly FedEx around the same time his life turned to shit. Sometimes you get what you wish for and his ingenious plan to meddle in affairs he really ought not to is one he lives to regret in no time at all.
Raven’s Fair is a character all by itself, with a population of seemingly four, the remainder of the townsfolk keep their heads down. They are bound by the curse of Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts), a long since-expired ventriloquist whose soul is trapped between planes and whose sole aspiration is to be granted a little silence. With precious little in the way of personnel, this allows Wan to open his box of tricks and what a box it is. He fills every shot with menace and meaning, low-hanging mist permeates the stifling atmosphere exquisitely and color palette plays a key part throughout, particularly in scenes doused in fuchsia hues, a trademark of his, and evocative of early Argento.
Director of photography John R. Leonetti clearly has an exclusive understanding of what it is that Wan is aiming to achieve and technically this is every bit as proficient as any of his later work. However it is sound which plays the key role throughout, more critically the entire lack of accompaniment that signifies something God awful waiting to play out. All audio elements are siphoned away to magnificent effect, leaving us every bit as discombobulated as Mary’s hapless quarry. These scenes show Wan at his most impish and take Dead Silence to a whole different level than anticipated.
The doll itself, whilst cantankerous to its voice box, is only a vessel and the vengeful spirit pulling the strings is just as pivotal to proceedings. There are actually parallels to Insidious in a thematic sense and it is easy to assume that this film acted as a stepping stone as he began to hone his skills. The pacing is brisk offering the addressee numerous instances to treasure and he sucks away the oxygen majestically with each set piece. He has fathomed exactly how to plunge the viewer into disarray and does so unapologetically and rhythmically. Everything is exaggerated and stylized, enough for the cynics to cry pompous, but they would be advised not to scream too loudly as Mary just got her ears syringed and she’s been fighting off a killer migraine.
Performances are all fine and Donnie Wahlberg’s Jim Lipton fares best, supplying the tree outside Jamie’s window and breathing down his collar at every turn. He is suitably smarmy and could be accused of coming across almost caricature but this was always Wan and Whannell’s intention as Dead Silence is evocative of those one-note ghost stories from the seventies and eighties and even vintage Hitchcock, and is all the better for having the courage of its convictions. At any point, the rickety foundations could have fallen in on themselves, but this is not culpable of losing the plot and the final act, for once, doesn’t detract from our investment. In addition, flashbacks are marvelously authentic and insightful, taking us deeper into the folklore of Guignol theater and fleshing out Mary Shaw’s dark intent admirably.
Dead Silence may not be trailblazing and certainly breaks no new bread with regards to storytelling. However, what you get unerringly from a James Wan production, is style by the pail-load and his finesse, as both a visionary film-maker and petulant puppet master able to tinker with our fear ducts, is in embarrassing wealth here. Monsieur Heureux shall return, taking this perilous pilgrimage has left me enthused and his trajectory is clear now. For that, I have Wan to thank, although I’m not entirely convinced I should be saluting him for this one.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Stark imagery is preferred to gushing geysers and the injury detail alone, when paired with Wan’s effortless ability to set a scene, is enough to loosen the sphincter. It never looks like being a wrong decision and Dead Silence achieves its stripes by not overplaying its hand. It is this restraint which leaves the interminable stain on our psyches as flagrant splatter has no place here.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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