Horror is a very interesting genre. I would consider it a home to 2 of the last 3 Best Picture winners (The Shape of Water & Parasite) as well as a recent winner of Best Original Screenplay (Get Out), but the genre is mostly filled with films that never got any recognition from the academy. It’s a broad genre that has everything from B-movie slashers to biting social commentary, from cheesy monster flicks to big budget corporate thrills, and from found footage indie darlings to straight-up schlock. In the sea of horror films, there’s an innumerable amount of pearls, and though it’d be a Herculean task to unearth them all, I hope to shine a light on some brilliant films that I think just never quite had their day in the sun. And, given that Saw is the film that truly piqued my interest in the genre as a whole, I thought it only fitting to start off with a hidden gem from the dynamic duo of James Wan & Leigh Whannell in what is perhaps their most underappreciated work.
Both Wan & Whannell dominate the realm of horror right now. Wan (and his protege David Sandberg) are taking over the ship of the DC film universe and steering it into a new direction with Aquaman and Shazam! while Whannell made a big splash on the indie scene last year with his hit film Upgrade (which will inevitably get its own write-up soon enough) and has recently directed The Invisible Man and been tapped to write the upcoming Escape From New York remake. Wan & Whannell have a bulletproof track record which includes Saw, Insidious, and most recently The Conjuring, so the very idea that this partnership could put up a film that largely flies under the radar feels damn-near impossible.
Here’s the big question you came here to have answered – is Dead Silence a good movie? Unfortunately, that can’t be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No”. It’s certainly got a fair share of issues; issues that I really don’t want to dwell on, but that I would be remiss to not acknowledge. The story is pretty absurd and doesn’t do much in the way of comic relief or self-awareness with its absurdity. It follows the story of a mysterious ventriloquist dummy that shows up at the home of a young couple before immediately killing the wife of our main character Jamie (Ryan Kwanten). The cops are involved almost immediately, making Jamie their top suspect but never actually arrest him because, well, that just wouldn’t make for a very good movie. I wouldn’t say anything about the film is particularly scary and it occasionally tends to err on the side of the police procedural schtick, very similar to what was the case with Saw, but just doesn’t quite execute to the same effect. That’s it, honestly. That’s all the bad. If you can stomach that much, then hold on tight.
The very first thing that hit me about this film was its use of transitions, to include the opening title card sequence and credits. Some of the scenes go on just a minute or two longer than you expect, but just when you feel yourself losing interest, Wan executes a brilliant transition, be it a cross zoom into someone’s eye, or a smash cut to a warehouse of ventriloquist dolls. There are a number of incredibly iconic horror film transitions, but I can’t quite remember the last time I watched something that had so many unique shots. Beyond that, the camerawork in general is absolutely brilliant. It’s almost shot like an action movies in some ways, essentially framing the characters as ants in an ant farm, and given the thematic elements of puppetry and ventriloquism, this approach to the camerawork really helps evoke a feeling of helplessness.
As far as some of the other design elements, everything is more or less fine – I would say. Ryan Kwanten in the lead role is pretty good and he is intriguing to watch throughout. The writing of the mystery occasionally errs on the side of heady but is ultimately pretty well-executed (though, certainly not as well executed as Saw, which would be the easiest thing to compare it to). I really loved the feel of some of the lighting, none of it is overly flashy but there are a lot of gross lime greens and some deep blues that make this film a quintessential mid-2000’s flick. The music is quite effective, definitely different than what you would expect from a standard horror film, but given the mystery angle of the film it works well. In a way, it loosely reminds me of the score for the original Candyman movie. On top of all of that, there is a strong sense of cohesion. All of the elements of the movie feel fully realized and there’s a sense of synthesis between the location designs, lighting, story, music and overall general feel of the film.
What really makes this film appealing to me is the twist, and to a lesser extent the entire tone throughout. The movie takes itself incredibly seriously and there’s almost no humour in it at all, which I personally appreciate. I’m a huge fan of humour in horror movies, but here it felt like a very intentional choice because the premise (essentially revolving around a killer ghost with a near-fetishization of ventriloquist dummies) is relatively absurd and infusing comedy into the script would totally derail the nature of the movie. The twist at the end cranks everything to a whole new degree. Wan and Whannell were acutely aware that their Saw fame would precede them in this film. In Saw, a series of fantasy-like events occur with elements of amnesia, a serial killer who presents himself as a puppet (coincidence, I’m sure), a dead man holding recordings in the middle of a bloody bathroom, and a criminal surgeon; but, with the strong twist at the end of Saw, everything falls into place and the illusion of fantasy is shattered. It’s possibly one of the strongest twists ever in a film. Here, the twist does snap everything into place, and it’s something completely unpredictable; however, where Saw stops and looks over the edge into the canyon of madness, Dead Silence just keeps running like Wil E. Coyote stepping on thin air before plummeting. Dead Silence isn’t afraid to dive head first into the absurdity, twisting away from their previous twist in Saw. So, is Dead Silence a good movie? I don’t know. But I have a feeling you want to go check it out for yourself now.