Searching for screams, finding Dead Silence

by Glen Baity

“Beware the stare of Mary Shaw,” goes the nursery rhyme. “She had no children, only dolls.”

Wow, that just sounds creepy, doesn’t it?

No? Well, maybe not. But for Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten), who is investigating the grisly murder of his wife, it’s an important piece of evidence. As he explains to detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), “In the town I come from, a ventriloquist’s dummy is, like, a bad omen.”

What a coincidence. In the town I come from, dolls are, like, not scary. And I’d be willing to wager that, unless you saw Child’s Play when you were 6 years old, dolls aren’t very scary where you come from, either.

Of course, a fundamentally unscary premise is only the first of many reasons why Dead Silence, the latest from Saw director James Wan, is not a very good horror film. The second, and arguably more prominent reason, is that he and screenwriter Leigh Whannell have never met a cliché they didn’t think was totally awesome and worthy of inclusion, if not celebration.

The fun starts when Jamie and wife Lisa (Laura Regan), quite out of the blue, receive an unmarked package on their doorstep containing a grotesque little dummy named Billy with a hollow wooden smile and lifelike, malicious eyes.

That arrival, and Lisa’s ensuing, awful death prompts Jamie to head back to his hometown of Ravensfair to study a local cautionary tale, that of Mary Shaw, a ventriloquist blamed for a rash of mysterious deaths in the early 20th century.

Rumor has it that Mary, using a very Freddy Kruger modus operandi, has for decades exacted vengeance from beyond the grave after the town’s parents murdered her in retaliation for her suspected role in the disappearance of several Ravensfair children. Her familiars are her collection of 100 dolls, which are deployed to harvest blood-curdling screams from Mary’s unsuspecting victims.

Though Dead Silence, surprisingly enough, isn’t as gory as Saw, it’s every bit as corny, its writing and acting just as embarrassing. Wan clearly has affection for innocence corrupted: In his previous work, it comes in the form of a clowned-up serial killer who just wants “to play a game.” Here it’s an army of children’s toys gone wrong, and the obvious intended effect is to trigger a deep-seated unease in the audience stretching back to childhood.

The problem here is that this is a well-worn path, and most any modern audience is probably inured to the old “spooky dolls” motif by now. That doesn’t stop Dead Silence from trying to sell it, with the net profit being a handful of yawns and a few reflexive “Boo!” scares.

I do appreciate that the film largely steers clear of the soulless tributes to bloody dismemberment that pass for horror these days, but what it boasts instead is just as detrimental to the genre. Nearly everything about Dead Silence bespeaks a blanket lack of imagination on the part of its creators, from the Silent Hill-issue set design to its reliance on a sing-song nursery rhyme for its mythology. It truly is a horror film for the survival-horror video game generation, which is a dangerous thing to copy since many of those games find their inspiration in – what else? – old horror movies.

Dead Silence, then, is essentially a copy of a copy, too mindlessly obedient to genre conventions to be remotely frightening. There’s also a discussion to be had about its ridiculously antiquated phobia of older, childless women, but that’s a separate column.

The modern horror fan, as I see it, has three options, some of them overlapping, and none of them particularly appealing: There’s the bloody stump subgenre typified in movies like Wolf Creek and Hostel; homages like House of 1,000 Corpses (though most audiences couldn’t distinguish between this and the first category); and musty riffs on urban legends like When a Stranger Calls and Dead Silence.

Notably absent from all of these is space for an original concept, which is why modern horror, as a cinematic force, has become largely irrelevant. The best of the genre these days employs liberal doses of screwball comedy, resulting in winning fare like Shaun of the Dead and Slither. There might be hope on the horizon: William Friedkin (The Exorcist) is set to unleash Bug, an interesting-looking and by all accounts unusual film, and none other than Marilyn Manson is readying Phantasmagoria, based on the works of Lewis Carroll, which simply by virtue of its subject promises to be a departure from the ordinary, if absolutely nothing else.

Should either of those films prompt a renaissance in scary movies, horror fans will look back on derivative muck like Dead Silence and shake their heads, if they look back at all. For my part, I can’t imagine why they would. When you can get your scary toy fix by watching Seed of Chucky for the 500th time, why bother?

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