There are many little flaws in writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan's Dead Silence and one great: this great flaw is that the film stakes everything upon our native fear of ventriloquist dummies. This is a classic gambit to take: many films and TV shows over the years have banked on the exact same fear, and with the single exception of a genuinely creepy episode of The Twilight Zone, none of them have been remotely frightening or good in any way. I might flatter myself that this is evidence of my cast-iron resistance to being scared, but then I must consider how a nearly-full movie theater erupted in incredulous laughter during the first major horror scene, and presume instead that Dead Silence is just a really shitty movie.
In the beginning, Jamie and Lisa Ashen (Ryan Kwanten, whom you haven't seen, and Laura Regan, whom you wouldn't recognise) are young and in love. Their New York yuppie idyll is broken by the arrival of a mysterious box containing a dummy named Billy. Despite the fact that there is no name or return address, despite the fact that we shall shortly learn that both Jamie and Lisa have a particular reason to fear random ventriloquist dummies, neither of them are particularly nonplussed, and so they go about their flirting and ordering of Chinese take out. Jamie wanders into the rainy night to pick up the food, and when he returns his wife has been viciously killed in one of the very worst scenes I have ever seen in a respectably-budgeted horror film. It involves the psychokinetic force of the dummy blowing her through a door. Pretty nifty.
Along creaks the plot: Detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg, bringing his superstar energy to this film as he did to the creators' Saw II. Oh, and there is no indication that his name is a deliberate joke on infamous celebrity hand-jobber James Lipton) thinks that Jamie must have dunnit; Jamie wisely flees to go to Lisa's funeral in their hometown of Ravens Fair. There he tangles with his estranged father and new stepmother, wanders around creepy locations - only at night, of course - and asks wizened old villagers about the Dark and Terrible Story of Mary Shaw, the ventriloquist whose ghost is said to still haunt these here parts. Lipton and Billy the dummy show up as need to provide plot momentum and shock scenes, respectively.
It's awful. It eats your soul, it's so awful. I didn't expect much of Whannell and Wan after the notorious Saw, but somehow that trilogy hadn't communicated to me how badly they understand the basics of story. Of course, those films were all about elaborate death 'n' gore, and the story was just a skeleton for that. In Dead Silence, they're apparently aiming for a creepy old ghost story feeling, but the story is a disaster. It is a series of non-happenings that only form the illusion of movement once you are past them and look back. And it's certainly not to anyone's credit that the entire plot hinges upon Jamie's convenient form of ignorance, in which he either knows a great deal about the legends of his hometown, or nothing whatsoever, based entirely upon the requirements of that particular scene. He knows of Mary Shaw, then he knows that she was a ventriloquist, then he's never heard of her, then he remembers that there is a schoolyard rhyme about her, then he doesn't. He knows exactly what he must in order to end up at just the right time in remote & decrepit locations after night falls.
It should not be a surprise that Jamie is a complete and utter idiot: he has been written by Leigh Whannell, who here even more than in the Saw trilogy has proven himself the heir to the Edward D. Wood, Jr. mantel of dialogue-writing excellence. Too many bons mots to share, although one that stands out in my mind for its particular expository brilliance is the exchange: "You've changed." "A stroke does that to a man." I find myself scraping to invent words to describe Whannell's dialogue, and I have come up with "fucktrocious": a good word because it combines "atrocious," one of the worst adjectives something can be, with a vulgarity, because vulgarities make me feel better.
Nothing good could come out of this script, but Wan doesn't hedge his bets - his direction sets fire to the script and salts the earth that remains, so that no hint of pleasant cinema should creep through. The film has been subjected to a digital post-production process that is often used for good, but here reduces everything in the film to a washed-out shade of slate blue, except for things that are red, which are REALLY FUCKING RED. To quote the incredibly jaundiced high-school girl sitting next to me in the theater: "That's so red. Why is his car so red? God, that is so red!"* To be perfectly honest, the technique is pretty much exactly the same as Eastwood & Co. used in Letters from Iwo Jima, down to the super-saturation of the color red; except there it wasn't unspeakably ugly, and it made sense.
I shouldn't have to criticize the performances, right? They suck. They have to suck. They are cursed with Whannellogue.
Fair's fair, there's actually one genuinely scary moment, and it relies extensively on the color red, and it uses strobe light in a rather noir-derivative way that is nonetheless effective. Dare I say, it actually uses the elliptical nature of editing to a great success. It is also present in the trailer, and hence you could just watch that on Apple's website and save yourself some money.
Also: the opening credits are awesome. They are designed to look like century-old footage with all sorts of dust and damage, being run through a cheap projector at a bad angle. They imply a terrifying, dangerous film to follow. They are easily the best opening credits I have seen in a film this year. So congratulations, you fucktrocious, fucktarded fucks.