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‘DEAD SILENCE’

Director James Wan is on top of the world right now with his #1 box office smash The Conjuring giving major smack-down to a number of high-profile summer tent-poles from Hollywood.

I’ve been a fan of his films since he took everyone by surprise with the modest hit Saw, only to distance himself from creating a franchise out of it.  Not surprisingly, his next film after the low budgeted Saw was an over-budgeted horror tale backed by the genre’s studio grand-daddy, Universal Pictures.

The film was a massive flop with audiences and especially trashed by critics.

Even if it suffers from being overblown in the budget department, and was probably hindered by pressure from the studio, Dead Silence is still an effective, creepy horror movie worth regarding.

Although Wan wouldn’t really be taken seriously in Hollywood until the unexpected box-office hit Insidious, you’ll find a lot of the director’s signature traits in this “sophomore slump.”

Dead Silence was conceived by both Wan and his writing partner Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious) in a labyrinthian style similar to what worked well for them in Saw.  There’s a mystery to be unraveled in the story, and you’re pretty much guaranteed it won’t be revealed until the very twist ending.

Also, as is often the case in a James Wan film, how scary you’ll find the film depends on your freak-out level with the subject matter.  Dead Silence focuses on the great uncanny spook-factor of ventriloquists and their dummies.  As overplayed a horror cliché it may be, the talking dummy always freaks me out.  Here, the scares accentuated by a very twisted tale.

The film is basically a whodunit that plunges quickly into supernatural territory.  The main protagonist (a pre-True Blood Ryan Kwanten) seeks out to explain the murder of his late wife.  The most plausible explanation–she’s the victim of a sick prank.  The craziest explanation, the evil ghost of ventriloquist Mary Shaw has returned to claim another heckler.

What I like about Dead Silence is it’s consistent in its tone.  There’s a sick sense of humor under it all, making it the least plausible and campiest of James Wan’s movies to date.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of a dark ride at a carnival, with plenty of goofy scares from out of nowhere, but atmospheric enough to make you feel like it was worth the time and money.

I think it’s that humorous element that leaves most audiences cold.  The thin line between the Horror and Comedy genre is tricky, and when done with such satirical glee, the audience often doesn’t know whether to laugh or scream.  A more extreme case of this is Tobe Hooper repeatedly misunderstood Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2.

I love the way the director inserts in-jokes and homages to the genre, but also to his previous films.  The Conjuring is packed with them if you know where to look.  In Dead Silence there’s a direct linage of production design carried from Jigsaw’s creations in Saw, but on a much grander scale.

There’s no doubt Universal Pictures was hoping for a franchise from James Wan, and Dead Silence tried to be a bankable new monster in the form of Mary Shaw.  A sequel had been planned before the release, and canceled shortly after.

According to a personal blog post from co-writter Leigh Whannell, the film was a lesson in what not to do with scripts going forward.  He describes the experience as being an “arranged marriage” with a Hollywood studio, pointing out that Independent film process ensures a less doctored end product.

Flaws and all, the end product of Dead Silence (and there’s an Unrated version available on DVD) is still a hell of a lot better than other big Hollywood efforts from the same time-period (The Fog remake, Boogyman, and The Reaping to name a few).

DEAD SILENCE is available from Universal Home Video on DVD only in the US in an Unrated edition.  The Theatrical and Unrated versions are available in HD digitally on multiple platforms.  It is currently not available on Blu-ray.

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