When it comes to popular horror franchises of the last two decades, it’s hard to think of two people more iconic that Leigh Whannell and James Wan. With Whannell screenwriting, and Wan directing, they spawned the “torture-porn” era with Saw in 2004, and then revolutionized horror again with Insidious in 2011.
Even after they both went off on their own, Wan helped create the Conjuring Universe which is still going strong, and Whannell is putting out amazing indie thrillers like Upgrade and The Invisible Man. However, there’s an often overlooked film of theirs (which Whannell wrote and Wan directed) that came in between Saw and Insidious.
Audiences seemed underwhelmed with 2007’s Dead Silence, resulting in a semi-flop at the box office. And in the years since, it often gets overlooked when discussing the filmography of Whannell and Wan. But given that the movie is now celebrating its 15th anniversary, we wanted to give it another look and see if it was better than we remember. Or if its “meh” response was entirely warranted.
Finding the Right Tone
Following the sudden and brutal murder of this wife, the film follows Jamie back to his old hometown and digging to the past. Right before she died, his wife received a ventriloquist dummy in a package, and his journey takes him down the rabbit hole of Mary Shaw.
Shaw was a ventriloquist from decades past whose dark history leers over the quiet and creepy town. As Jamie attempts to uncover the truth, he’s constantly followed by Detective Lipton played by Donnie Wahlberg. Naturally, Lipton thinks Jamie murdered his wife, even though he can’t prove it. What results is a genuinely creepy movie that admittedly has a few missteps.
Whether or not a horror movie takes itself seriously is often what determines how an audience perceives it. A film that’s trying to be very serious will obviously be held up to higher scrutiny than something that knows it’s ridiculous and just goes for it. And that’s partially where this movie suffered.
The story of Mary Shaw is genuinely creepy and fascinating but Lipton’s character just feels out of place and a little too comedic in his approach. Wahlberg doesn’t give a bad performance, it just doesn’t really fit with the tone and theme of the rest of the movie. So it’s no surprise that upon release, audiences weren’t really sure what to make of the movie, good or bad.
Creepy New Creation
Known for his affinity for creepy dolls, it’s no surprise that James Wan loved the idea of a dummy being used as a vehicle for horror and evil. Much like his family-friendly counterpart Slappy, Billy the ventriloquist dummy can be downright terrifying.
The one thing most fans can agree on is that the design of Billy and Mary Shaw, as well as her story and rhyme were the highlights of the movie. Simply saying, “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw…” is enough to send chills down your spine!
Our natural instinct when terrified is of course to scream, and it’s all the more terrifying that screaming is your ultimate undoing. Given how memorable the villain (and twist ending) was, it’s a shame that the movie itself didn’t have the same longevity.
Right Place, Wrong Time
Ultimately, I think the reason for Dead Silence’s lack of success is that it was released just a few years too early. 2007 was still very much the era of “torture porn” and Asian horror remakes, so a creepy supernatural thriller about a dummy may have fared better in the early 2010s (after Insidious caused a new trend of supernatural horror movies).
In a strange but understandable creative choice, Dead Silence is even shot and edited a lot like the Saw films, and it doesn’t work to the movie’s advantage. The choppy, fast-paced editing style works for something like Saw. It’s meant to be grounded, gritty and very “in your face” intense with its brutal subject matter and extreme violence.
But that vibe doesn’t at all match the tone of a creepy supernatural thriller that should have been more slow-burn and unsettling at times. Dead Silence deserved an editing style that created suspense and that’s exactly the opposite of what happened.
Even Charlie Clouser’s musical score seems a bit out of place. To his credit, it’s a strong piece of music. And while it is creepy, it still sounds very electronic and industrial, something which fit the Saw series like a glove, but not for a creepy ghost story that is Dead Silence.
For what it’s worth, we also know in hindsight that Universal meddled a great deal with the final product. As a result, Leigh Whannell has essentially disowned the movie and claimed that it’s his least favorite he’s ever worked on.
Had the movie been released just a few years later, and its tone and style more accurately reflective of its subject matter, it might just be remembered more fondly like Insidious or Sinister. But instead, it unjustly remains largely forgotten among mainstream audiences.
What do you think of Dead Silence? Let us know in the comments!
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