The spirit of Edward D. Wood Jr. is alive and well, and currently taking up residence in the movies of James Wan and Leigh Whannell.
When his wife is murdered and there are no signs of an intruder, Jamie (Ryan Kwanten, "Flicka") follows the one lead he has: a ventriloquist dummy named Billy that was mysteriously shipped to him the day before. Returning to his desolate home town of Ravens Fair, Jamie, tailed by a cop (Donnie Wahlberg, "Saw II"), comes into contact with the legend of Mary Shaw, a ventriloquist who was brutally murdered by the town 60 years ago and now a spirit that terrorizes the locals. As Jamie searches for a way to stop Shaw and her dummy minions, he hopes to uncover the gruesome reason Shaw went after his innocent wife.
The creators of the "Saw" franchise are back with this diminutive ode to the horror films of yesteryear; a promise that's only kept, at best, visually. I've gone on the record three times now with my distaste for the supremely asinine "Saw" films, but there's a special gob of bile reserved for the film that started it all.
I can see the taboo lure of torture devices as a way to explain the popularity of "Saw," but that doesn't excuse the fact that Wan isn't a very clever filmmaker. For genre kicks, he submerges his scares in rapid cuts, aural jumps, and flash; with actors, he's poison. Cary Elwes has entered the horror cheese hall of fame with his performance in "Saw;" a piece of acting that's exquisite in its lack of restraint or direction. How it made the journey to the screen without anyone objecting is a question that plagues me to this day.
Opening with the classic Universal studio logo, "Silence" is initially presented to the audience as a throwback horror romp, with Wan dousing the film in fog, stripping his picture of color, and encouraging composer Charlie Clouser to lay heavy on the suspense cues. It's difficult to understand what all this effort is for, since once the picture begins, it's clear we're playing with the 2007 rules of horror, not 1937.
"Silence" is a picture of such robust mood that it forgets to insert some thrills into the concoction. Scrape out every scene of near-motionless curiosity, flashlight-n-spiderweb detective work, and vacant staring, and you have perhaps 10 solid minutes of actual plot. The rest of the film is a fruitless exercise in aimless suspense construction, and it goes right into the toilet every instant Wan sniffs up the courage to pay off this inane tale of limp witchcraft and fuzzy patches of haunting.
Not helping the effort are Ryan Kwanten and Donnie Wahlberg, who both fall into the Elwes school of confused and miscalculated reaction acting. While Kwanten works his nostrils with increasingly Tribbianiesque results, Wahlberg gets off on the wrong note of unintended hilarity and never recovers. Clinging to his electric shaver prop (don't ask me, I didn't write the movie), Wahlberg is doing his best tough cop impression in a picture that can't bear to have any single performance break the illusion of fear. Wahlberg stands out in all the wrong ways and his stabs at humor are brutal. Maybe Wan was too busy with his fog machine to notice.
So, faced with "Plan 9" acting efforts, a story that never amounts to anything (even with a rich history of ventriloquism horror to mine, Wan and Whannell have written a flaccid script), and suspense that calcifies the minutes it runs through the projector, surely there must be something Wan has up his sleeve to salvage this mess. Well, lo and behold, there's a twist ending!
Universal didn't press screen "Silence" under the guise that they didn't want us blasted critics to give away the ending that Wan and Whannell have carefully planned for. If you believe that, there's a bridge in Brooklyn I'd love to sell you. I wouldn't dare give away the bootlegger's turn "Silence" pulls in the final five minutes, but I will say for fans of "Saw," it's going to be serious case of déjà vu. The two films don't share the same resolution, but the scoring, editing, and general "oh, good lord" head-slapping nature of the twist is identical to "Saw," and in a very deliberate way.
Lastly, if you're simply looking for a rollicking dummy-murdering good time, I'm sorry to report the screenplay is more consumed with the supernatural than wood. Overall, the appearance of Mary Shaw's dummies serve to spread out the thin atmosphere Wan and Whannell have created, used to unsettle the audience with their dead stares and carved smiles. They never join in on the fun in a "Child's Play" fashion, leaving the potential for gleeful genre havoc woefully untapped. Universal's marketing has been evasive on this subject, so let me put this question to rest: Billy and his pine brethren don't receive the chance they deserve to break out and free this "Dead Silence" of its shameful display of cinematic laziness and numbing absence of imagination.
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