A spooky dummy and the vengeful ghost of a ventriloquist make one mean combination in the very accomplished “Dead Silence”, the second film from Saw director James Wan. Working with much of the same team from the 2004 franchise launcher, including screenwriter Leigh Whannell and composer Charlie Clouser, Wan has wrung out a fearsome horror tale out of what could have been high-concept kitsch.
Laden with atmosphere and a sustained sense of dread, the film is constructed in such a way that you spend most of it on the edge of fear rather than knee-deep in it, but it does have a few moments that are flat-out scary. None as terrifying as that one in The Messengers where the stairs start shaking and ghoulish arms try to pull Kristen Stewart into the ghastly Beyond, but scary stuff nonetheless. The story opens with young couple Jamie and Lisa (Ryan Kwanten and Laura Regan) about to enjoy a quiet evening in their apartment. There’s a knock on the door, but nobody’s in the hallway; instead, there is a coffin-like package containing a ventriloquist’s dummy. Jamie’s not amused, because where he’s from, a hamlet by the name of Ravens Fair, finding such a dummy is a bad omen: there was this old lady ventriloquist, Mary Shaw, whose ghost, the legend goes, is looking for revenge on those who killed her and ripped out her tongue after a young boy went missing. From that point on, the movie gradually unveils how the sins of a vigilante mob and the dark side of this outcast, obsessive old lady created something deeply evil whose search for vengeance has echoed through the generations. After Lisa is gruesomely killed, Jamie goes back to his hometown to get to the bottom of the legend, which includes visiting his wheelchair-bound father (Bob Gunton), who he hasn’t talked to for a long time, and the elderly town mortician played by Michael Fairman
Of great importance to the atmosphere is the dummy called Billy, who soon validates Jamie’s uncomfortable feeling. The doll is seen fairly often, but sparingly enough to maintain a foreboding intrigue. Suffice it to say that it’s devilishly effective in its function as a conduit, if you will, for the spirit of Mary Shaw. The filmmakers have ingeniously chosen the less is more approach, actually going one step further: the arrival of her ghost is signified by sound vanishing into complete silence, a very clever trick that really grabs your attention. Clouser’s score has a Halloween-like ring to it at first, but it evolves into a first-rate effort that at times sounds like his masterful theme from the final moments of Saw. Whannell has written a wicked script, some of the highlights being an elaborate flashback to a Mary Shaw/Billy performance during Ravens Fair’s heyday, in an opulent theatre built on a lake, and the initial glimpse of her ghost at a motel. Billy is not scary in a visceral sense, but there’s something creepy about him. We’re far from Puppet Master territory here folks: there’s no Blade or Tunneler looking to slice you up or drill a hole into you; Billy’s not a perpetrator but a sign of bad things to come. He has a look vaguely similar to that of Hugo in Dead of Night (1945), the eerie Ealing production that Wan has mentioned as one of his favourite horror films ever, while Edward’s ornate mansion and the lake-built theatre are nods to gothic Hammer films.
As the lead, Kwanten expands his range after a supporting role in Flicka. He may not show great depth yet, but he has a very adequate intensity while Fairman is suitably weary as the mortician. Although briefly seen, Judith Roberts is chilling as Mary Shaw and Amber Valletta is decent in a small but important role as the new young bride of Jamie’s father. The only character I had a problem with is Donnie Wahlberg’s nagging cop, but in the end Wan has made a very solid follow-up to Saw, focusing on a vengeful supernatural being instead of a moralizing killer setting up vicious death traps. Visually and story-wise, there are recurrent motifs of secrecy and unveiling in both movies, but to elaborate on them would be to play spoiler. As far as the ending goes, the only thing I’ll say is that it ends with a nifty, twist-induced bang. “Dead Silence” was not screened in advance for critics, but true horror fans will know it’s out there and have a good chance of being pleasantly surprised.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay