Universal tried to impose this horror flick’s title on web reviewers by eschewing any pre-screenings, but as usual the studio is unable to perpetuate its embargo for very long. Still, one can understand the reluctance to show “Dead Silence” before opening day, because it’s a sad fact that dolls and puppets don’t make very frightening instruments of death in horror movies. Remember the pathetic “Puppet Master” movies? Or the awful “Child’s Play” franchise? Even Anthony Hopkins couldn’t save “Magic.” And switching to action figures didn’t help “Small Soldiers.” The only exception to the rule is the one most American viewers probably haven’t seen—the genuinely scary Michael Redgrave episode in the 1945 British anthology picture “Dead of Night” (poorly mimicked by Rod Serling in his “Twilight Zone” episode called “The Dummy”). Unlike it, “Dead Silence”—despite the fact that it comes from the Australian duo (writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan) responsible for the original “Saw”—doesn’t break the mold. There’s no franchise in the offing this time around, mates.
The locale is a haunted town called Ravens Fair, whose residents once took the law into their own hands when a crazed ventriloquist named Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) was accused of killing a young boy (Steven Taylor), disposing of her along with all her puppets. But of course you can’t keep a good villain down. Like Freddy Krueger before her, Mary’s out for blood. (In fact, the script owes an awful lot to “Nightmare on Elm Street”—like the silly business about not screaming when you see Mary in your dreams.) And whenever her dolls appear, gruesome deaths are sure to follow. (Her specialty is ripping out her victims’ tongues.) Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) has tried to escape the curse with his new bride Lisa (Laura Regan), but to no avail; and it’s not long before he’s returned to Ravens Fair (a place that looks like a bombed-out war zone) a widower determined to uncover the truth about the town’s—and Mary’s—terrible past. What follows is a would-be roller-coaster ride of chills and scares as Jamie, his father Edward (Bob Gunton) and dad’s new trophy wife Ella (Amber Valletta) are caught up in Mary’s revenge—a haunted-house extravaganza that also involves mortician Henry Walkman (Michael Fairman), who as a child (Keir Gilchrist) was involved in the dead woman’s original “crime,” Henry’s loony wife Marion (Joan Heney), and a homicide cop (Donnie Wahlberg), complete with “Columbo” trenchcoat, who’s in town because he suspects Jamie of killing his wife.
Whannell’s script, based on a story by him and Wan, goes more for atmosphere than for shocks; the movie ranks reasonably low on the Gore-O-Meter, and even plays against expectations by having the signal for Mary’s presence be not the screaming music and sound effects common in today’s ultra-loud horror flicks, but sudden silence—a very unusual circumstance in Hollywood pictures nowadays. But the device doesn’t engender many chills when all that’s happening in the quiet is that characters are wandering around cluttered rooms and dark hallways, occasionally saying “Who’s there?” (The silence also, unhappily, allows one to hear the jangle of all the cell phones morons in the audience keep bringing into theatres.) And though Whannell tries to add a “Saw”-like twist coda to the story, it not only makes little sense but is telegraphed barely fifteen minutes or so in; at least this viewer foresaw it that early, and assumes others will be as prescient as he is.
“Dead Silence” does manage a nice moodiness; Julie Berghoff’s production design manages to be fairly creepy on what was probably a meager budget, and together Wan and cinematographer John R. Leonetti provide some arresting compositions and a few cool visual transitions; Charlie Clouser’s score is interesting, too, rather reminiscent of some of those Jerry Goldsmith did for genre flicks (“Psycho II,” for instance). But the acting’s pretty bad. Kwanten is nowhere near as likable as he was as the brother in “Flicka,” though in his defense he’s stuck with some really lame dialogue (though not quite as bad as the jingle repeatedly mentioned about Mary, which has the temerity to rhyme “Shaw” with “dolls”). Valletta and Gunton are pretty much wasted, but Fairman and Heney chew the scenery mercilessly, and so does Wahlberg—indeed, his reading of his supposedly humorous lines is so over-the-top macho that you may be as happy as I was to see him get the Shaw Treatment in the end. (But even that effect seems derivative, this time of the closing shot in “Jeepers Creepers.”)
The result is a genre movie that’s well-produced, but extremely silly and not at all scary. This “Silence” is definitely D.O.A.