Try as he might, Judge Patrick Bromley can no longer hold his tongue.
You scream. You die.
In 2004, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell unleashed Saw upon the world, and I don't believe there's a single person that could have predicted the results. The movie wasn't just credited with reinventing the horror genre, but with saving it—it was the new benchmark for splatter movies to strive for, doing gigantic box office and ushering in the era of "torture porn." It also became the first legitimate horror franchise since the 1980s, spawning two (non-Wan directed) sequels with more on the way.
Now, Wan and Whannell have collaborated on their first real outing since Saw: 2007's Dead Silence. Will the film live up to the names they've created for themselves? Or will it prove them to be one-hit wonders?
Facts of the Case
"Beware the stare of Mary Shaw
So goes the tale of Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts, Mac), the Freddy Krueger of puppeteers. She's one of these mean people who gets killed by concerned citizens and comes back as something even meaner to take revenge on those that done her wrong. And cut their tongues out.
Impressively, she does this without moving her lips.
When the wife of Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten, Flicka, doing his best impression of a block of wood) is mysteriously murdered following the mysterious appearance of a mysterious marionette, Jamie decides to solve a mystery. He visits his wheelchair-bound father (Bob Gunton, The Shawshank Redemption) and his impossibly pretty wife (Amber Valetta, What Lies Beneath. He learns more about Mary Shaw and his family's connection to her. He keeps finding a dummy lying around. Donnie Wahlberg (Ransom) shows up playing the closest thing to an actual character in the movie, while still remaining the furthest thing from a human being. He's a cop who wants Jamie for murder, but doesn't actually arrest him. He just shaves a lot.
I'm pretty sure some other stuff happens, too, but I've lost interest in talking about it.
The best thing I can say about James Wan's Dead Silence is that it isn't Saw. The worst thing I can say about it is that it isn't Saw.
I give Wan and Whannell credit for branching out and trying to do something different; if the Saw sequels have proven anything, it's that there's money to be made by not fixing what ain't broken. The two could have easily gone back to that very shallow well and done a minor variation on their breakthrough movie. That they chose to expand their cinematic vocabularies and try something sort of new is worthy of the little admiration I have for Dead Silence. It tries to be an old-fashioned ghost story—more gothic and (dare I say) elegant than the visceral claustrophobia of Saw. It cuts back on the gore in favor of the good old creeps.
Yes, it tries to do all of this. Tries.
Because what Dead Silence ultimately achieves is dullness, and that might be the greatest sin a horror movie can commit. Good horror movies shake us to the core. Average ones at least have a decent scare or two—something to hold our attention during those lags. Even really awful horror manages to elicit laughs. Saw managed to combine all three into one movie. Dead Silence does none of it.
That comes as a surprise, too, because the thing is so darn silly. It wants to be elegant and old-fashioned, but Wan can't stop himself from doing that obnoxious stutter-cut that's in every hackish horror movie nowadays. The styles clash. Besides that, the movie seems to rest itself solely on the principle that puppets are scary—like someone watched the one scene in Saw with the mask-wearing guy on the tricycle and decided to make a movie entirely out of that. And maybe puppets are scary, I guess, but you've got to do something with them. They can't just keep popping up on chairs or in cars, inert, terrifying us with their ability to not move.
Then there are the other problems. Ryan Kwanten, the movie's lead, is probably a very nice guy. He's Australian, so how could he not be? And maybe it's not his fault that his performance is so lifeless. He is not given a part to play. His character does not have a single defining characteristic. No one does, except Donnie Wahlberg—his character shaves with an electric razor. I'm being serious. That razor is even used in the movie's single lame attempt at black humor; I won't spoil it, but if you find yourself laughing at that, there's a good chance you and I aren't in agreement on this movie.
And I'm sorry, Leigh Whannell. I do like you. I've enjoyed listening to you on commentary tracks, and you're very quick-witted and self-deprecating and several other complimentary hyphenates. Plus, you're Australian. But based on the dialogue of Dead Silence, I'm not so sure you're a gifted screenwriter. Yes, Saw had a clever premise, but where it went from there I can't say much about. Dead Silence doesn't even have it that good. It tries—oh so desperately—to construct a memorable movie mythology. That's why we get that silly "Mary Shaw" rhyme so many darn times. But it also attempts to invent rules that don't make any sense. One character tells another that growing up, he was always taught that if someone leaves a doll on your doorstep, it's a bad omen. What? I'm 30 years old. I've had lots of chances to get dolls left on my doorstep. Or to leave a doll on someone else's doorstep. Neither has happened. It strikes me odd that such a phenomenon would be so rampant that children would have to be warned. Maybe that's just me. As for the rest of the dialogue in Dead Silence, a lot of it has the cadence and subtlety of straight-to-cable soft-core trash.
One more things, Misters Wan and Whannell: yes, Saw had a twist ending. People seemed to respond to it, because nowadays the mark of a good movie is its ability to arbitrarily trick the audience. It's not necessary, however, to include a twist ending in everything. Some stories are better told straight. And besides, anyone familiar with Roger Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters will see this thing coming from blocks away.
At least the disc looks and sounds good. The film is presented in a very attractive 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and Wan really does try to make the best use of the aspect ratio—even if it's at the expense of all story logic (the puppet theater on an island comes to mind). What little creep factor the movie has comes from the 5.1 surround track, which services all the elements capably and contains a few fun separation effects. In that regard, I'll bet Dead Silence is best suited for home viewing.
The disc boasts that it's the "Unrated" cut, but having not seen the theatrical cut I don't feel qualified to comment on what's been added. I will say that there's very little explicit gore, so I can't imagine that this version is a lot harder than what you may have already seen. It's more of a marketing tool at this point, I think.
The one saving grace of the Dead Silence DVD—the thing I was looking to most after feeling let down by the movie—was a commentary track by Wan and Whannell. Their tracks have been the best part of the Saw DVDs, and I couldn't wait to hear them joke around about the movie's shortcomings. Well, even more disappointing than Dead Silence is the fact that there is no commentary track.
Instead, there's a handful of featurettes, the best of which discusses the movie's lavish production design (though when one crew person refers to something as "signature James Wan," I had to stop myself from breaking the TV…let's have the guy make more than two movies—which are, by the way, pretty disparate—before even suggesting he has a signature style). There's some deleted scenes that shouldn't have been included anyway, an annoying music video, and an alternate opening and closing sequence. They play like bookends, and actually show some promise; the alternate opening features a woman telling the story to a child, which helps play up the movie's "ghost story" origins. The alternate ending, however, takes that into the wrong direction and winds up being just as silly as the ending that was used.
Look, I'm not comparing Saw to A Nightmare on Elm Street, but let's pretend that Wes Craven's follow-up to Nightmare was Shocker. You'd wonder what all that fuss was about in the first place, right? You'd think maybe the success of that first movie was kind of a fluke?
That's Dead Silence. Horror aficionados interested in following the careers of this new class of filmmakers (a group that includes Alexandre Aja and Eli Roth alongside Wan) should see the movie, if only to understand the ways that it goes wrong while still pushing Wan in new directions. It's more worthy of study than enjoyment.
Guilty of trying to rhyme "Shaw" with "dolls." And of not being very good.
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