March 18, 2007

Movie Review: Dead Silence

"Beware the stare of Mary Shaw
She had no children, only dolls
If you see her in your dream
Please be sure not to scream"

The minds that created the Saw phenomenon have reteamed to try and forge another new direction in horror. Unfortunately, it is not so much a new direction as it is a mash up of previously mined ideas. Fortunately, they have merged those elements with style and have created a film that is seriously creepy, not necessarily scary, but definitely creepy. James Wan and Leigh Whannell have set aside the copious amounts of blood spilled in their prior creation, in favor of a ventriloquist's dummy. As you all know, there is always room for another creepy doll in the horror genre.

The story centers on Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten). It opens with him enjoying an evening home with his wife, when a package arrives mysteriously on his doorstep. Inside is a box containing a puppet, which sparks talk of Mary Shaw and the legend surrounding her demise. You see, Jamie comes from a town that is paralyzed with fear from this legend. Soon enough, she is dead and Jamie is the number one suspect, and is being hounded by a disheveled detective by the nane of Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg). What follows is Jamie returning to the town of his birth, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Mary Shaw and what she has to do with the death of his wife.

Jamie returns home to bury his young bride, and find out what he can about Mary Shaw. The more he uncovers, the more he discovers that the life and death of Mary Shaw is quite netangled in the roots of his own family tree. In a plot point worth of A Nightmare on Elm Street, we learn that Mary Shaw was.... I fear I have already said too much, suffice to say there is a distinct similarity between Mary and the legendary Freddy.

It is fabulously creepy, if not all that scary. That is, you won't find yourself jumping, or being grossed out, but when that doll's eyes move, you skin will crawl. There is something inherently scary in puppets and clowns (oh yes, there is a seriously messed up clown puppet). The way the blank, emotionless eyes and expressionless faces stare back at you from their resting place, the way the shadows play on their faces in the darkness, you will be creeped out. Jusr imagine yourself, alone, with the movie's Billy, you will be sure to have some bad dreams crop up.

As I mentioned earlier, there is considerably less blood and gore than can be found in the Saw films. In its place is a much creepier atmosphere, and a more stylish approach to the presentation. Whereas Saw had style, it was more concerned with the plot, Dead Silence is a much better looking film, James Wan has grown as a director. There is a distinct difference in the approach he has with this film. There is some blood, to be sure, but this is definite throwback to the days of atmospheric horror. Wan, and editor Michael N. Knue, employ interesting wipe cuts, and a variety of transitions in combination with off angle shots always increasing the atmosphere. Never do they call attention to themselves, but they add so much to the feeling of doom that surrounds everything.

Dead Silence just oozes creepiness. From the washed out color palette, to the cinematography, to the music, to those infernal puppets, everything is designed to give you that gnawing feeling at the back of your neck. As Jamie gets closer to uncovering Mary Shaw's secrets, the eerier the dolls become. Then there is the sound design, it ties into the title and reminds me of Silent Hill. In Silent Hill, once you crossed into the other world, whenever a siren went off, you knew something was going to happen, something bad. You did not know what, but you were sure to be bracing yourself against the unknown. In this film, everything went silent, no music, no ambient sound, nothing. The sound would die down, you would brace yourself, and then something would happen. It is a marvelously simple, and terribly effective in signalling the scares, but rather than the old standby of the fake scare, followed by the real scare, this has the real scares come straight away. I loved that about this. The silence, combined with the score from Charlie Clouser bring the element of sound design and the place of a score into sharp focus, as they share an equal role in the atmospherics.

Is the movie perfect? Not by a long shot, but it is quite good. It brings elements of Puppet Master and A Nightmare on Elm Street together in this horror stew. You could even connect it to the Saw series, as that, too, contained a creepy puppet, a puppet that can be spied amongst the puppet parts of this film, if you watch closely. Perhaps the Saw killer is related to Mary Shaw, perhaps the puppet in Saw is more than just a pawn of its creator, perhaps the puppet is the one having an influence over the deadly games being played. I don't know, but it is a fun thought.

The film suffers the greatest in the acting department. Ryan Kwanten was rather bland in the lead role. I found myself distracted by how he didn't really seem like someone whose wife ahd been brutally murdered, and he is more of just there propelling the plot rather than being a major factor. Amber Valleta, as Jamie's stepmom, doesn't seem to hold much weight either. On the flipside, Donnie Wahlberg's perpetually shaving, rumpled detective was perfect, the non-believer who gets caught off guard when the reality becomes apparent. Is it a realistic portrayal of a lawman? No, but it works within the movie. There is also Judith Roberts, who is deliciously evil as Mary Shaw, a memorable new villain.

One more thing before I close. Whoever decided to make "Shaw" rhyme with "dolls" needs to try harder next time. I am all for close rhymes, but this one has bugged me since I first heard it in the trailer.

Bottomline. It is nice to see the creepy on the big screen. A definite departure from the torture horror that Wan and Whannell have championed prior to this. This is a movie that will make your skin crawl. I cannot say it scared me, but it did creep me out. Nicely done film with a nice sense of style.



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