Dead Silence (Unrated) (HD DVD)
Universal // Unrated // $39.98 // June 26, 2007
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 14, 2007
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I don't have the first clue how to direct, but I'm pretty sure I know where I'd start: dig through a stack of my favorite movies on DVD and half-assedly mimic whatever they do. After sitting through Dead Silence, I'm kinda left with the impression that that's James Wan's approach to directing too.

Dead Silence, James Wan and Leigh Whannell's follow-up to Saw, opens with Lisa (Laura Regan) and Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) having their cutesy young married couple banter interrupted by the mysterious delivery of a ventriloquist dummy. It's kinda random, sure, but the two of 'em shrug it off, although the dummy reminds Lisa of a rhyme she heard growing up:
Beware the stare of Mary Shaw
She had no children, only dolls
And if you see her in your dreams
Be sure you never, ever scream
Or she'll rip your tongue out at the seam.
Okay, she doesn't remember every word, but you get the idea. Anyway, Jamie ducks out to grab dinner while Lisa stuffs things under her shirt and wonders what she'd look like pregnant, and that's not so much a winning idea when you're alone with a creepy inanimate object in a horror flick. Jamie swears he hears his wife's voice when he comes back home and almost slips on a trail of blood, but he finds Lisa's lifeless body propped up on the bed, her mouth grotesquely wrenched open and her tongue ripped out.

Instantly pegged as the prime suspect, Jamie is followed by Detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) to the sleepy little town of Ravens Fair to bury his wife. Jamie can't shake that nursery rhyme out of his head, and he asks around about Mary Shaw to anyone who'll listen: the aging caretaker at the mortuary and his bat-shit crazy wife, Jamie's father, a once devastatingly cruel man who is now confined to a wheelchair, and his impossibly gorgeous trophy wife (Amber Valletta).

Jamie's eventually filled in on the backstory. Famed ventriloquist Mary Shaw was suspected of murdering a redheaded little pest who heckled her during a performance, and her family sought vengeance by slicing off Shaw's tongue. Ever since, Ravens Fair has been plagued by death, and the disfigured corpses of her killers' families have been found year by year, meticulously posed and their tongues yanked out. So, yeah, you know what happens from there. Jamie's determined to put an end to the curse and keeps acting nuts, burying an oversized doll in a cemetery and all, Detective Boomtown and his annoying electric razor prop get dragged along to an ornate, rundown theater (groaningly named the Guignol) built decades ago in the middle of a lake, all of the effects are saved up for the climax, there's a "...the hell?" elaborate twist at the end...fade to black, roll credits.

Wait, wait, wait. An entire town refuses to speak the name of a kiddie murderer who's butchered by a vengeful mob, and then the killer comes back from the dead to slaughter their children, somehow inspiring a vaguely creepy nursery rhyme along the way? Yup, Dead Silence nicks its story straight off of Elm Street, but the list of sarcastic-cough-influences reads a lot longer than that. A good bit of the imagery in the finale is lifted from Dario Argento's Inferno, the rest cribs generously from Universal's monster movies from the black and white era, and I'm sure if I were as well-versed in the work of Mario Bava as I probably ought to be, I'd have picked up on a lot of that too. There are directors who can ape other movies and make something compelling in the process, but Wan is like a kid who strolls out of a music store with a $2,000 Rickenbacker and a copy of 'Guitar for Dummies'. There's more to music than putting your fingers somewhere in the general vicinity where they should be on a ridiculously expensive guitar, and there's more to filmmaking than quick cuts and extravagant sets.

James Wan didn't want to make another splatter-flick in some Fincher-esque bathroom, and Dead Silence dials down the brutality. Even with the 'unrated' banner on the front cover, there's nothing in this cut of the movie that wouldn't have easily landed an R. There really isn't any on-screen grue, and the movie cuts away too quickly from its handful of corpses for anyone to be shocked or horrified. The body count is still at a meager two after a full hour in, and that'd be okay if Wan and Whannell had filled the rest of the movie with...y'know, something. They didn't, though, and even though Dead Silence clocks in at a lean 91 minutes, it still somehow manages to be agonizingly dull.

In between the first two kills, Dead Silence cranks out every cliché in the Big Book of Shitty Horror Movies. If there's a mirror on-screen, you reflexively start counting down until something ominously flashes in front of it. Jamie rushes back to his car after a trip to the cemetery, and creepy sounds circling the car...? Murky blurs zipping across the fogged up windows? Check and check. The dummys' eyes follow whoever's in the room with 'em, and despite what the poster art and TV spots might have left you thinking, moving their eyes is about all the dummies are given a chance to do; Mary Shaw's the only killer this go-around. Since Dead Silence isn't written or directed well enough to establish a creepy atmosphere on its own, pretty much the entire movie is set either in a Victorian mansion, a graveyard, or a rundown theater in the middle of a lake that itself is in the middle of a rock quarry, and if a scene doesn't seem to be working, the stock response seems to be to slather the set in cobwebs and to fire up the fog machine.

Dead Silence is too derivative and plays it too safe to be aggressively awful. It's a movie anchored around a boring character suffering through a boring investigation in which hardly anything happens to anyone, and the very few that are killed are knocked off the exact same way each and every time. Devoid of tension, suspense, or the unsettlingly creepy mood it tries so desperately to set, Dead Silence is a 24 minute episode of Tales from the Darkside stretched out to feature length with a bloated budget and a gleefully ridiculous twist ending. Not recommended.

Video: Dead Silence has a heavily stylized appearance, shot through heavy filters to drain away most of the color and to cast the film in an icy blue, and that approach may have caused the crispness and clarity of the 2.39:1 high definition video to take a slight hit in the process. Many of the earliest shots in the movie have a faint tinge of softness to them, although either this improves as Dead Silence goes along or I just quickly got used to it. Long stretches of the movie are shot in exceptionally low light, and the image holds up reasonably well in the dark. There is some measure of film grain, but it looks natural enough and is unintrusive throughout. The level of fine detail is a considerable improvement over the standard definition presentation on the flipside of this combo disc but can be somewhat erratic, not consistently impressing in quite the same way so many of Universal's other day-and-date releases have.

Dead Silence definitely looks slick in high definition -- it's never in question that this is a movie straight out of theaters -- but the image isn't overflowing with fine object detail and doesn't boast that tactile, three-dimensional pop that usually lands the highest ratings. This HD DVD is probably representative of the way Dead Silence looked theatrically, but the high-def presentation falls somewhere closer to 'good' rather than 'great'.

Audio: Horror flicks usually take better advantage of multichannel audio than just about any other genre, but the sound design of this Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack is surprisingly tame. The bulk of Dead Silence's $20 million budget clearly went to the elaborate production design, attempting to flesh out an eerie atmosphere with its foggy, cobweb-draped visuals, and I guess there wasn't enough cash left in the kitty to follow through with an unsettlingly atmospheric soundtrack. There's a hell of a lot of bass to punctuate the scares -- to the point where it's borderline-obnoxious -- but the mix can't seem to figure out what to do with the surround channels. There is one exception: one of the more inventive tricks Dead Silence whips out is the way background noise slowly grinds to a halt before completely fading away whenever Mary Shaw draws near. There are some strong discrete effects during those mostly silent stretches, particularly the placement of the disembodied voices that Mary Shaw rips from her victims. Too bad there isn't more of that sort of thing. Technically, the Dolby Digital Plus track is completely fine, but the timid sound design fails to impress.

The English Dolby Digital Plus audio is the only soundtrack on this HD DVD. Subtitles have been provided in English and French, and a Spanish subtitle stream is exclusively on the DVD side of the combo disc for whatever reason.

Extras: Dead Silence offers up one of its extras in high-def -- a music video for Aiden's "We Sleep Forever" -- and like the movie itself, the band's video has been encoded using Microsoft's VC-1 codec. The rest of the extras are the same as the DVD side of this combo disc, presented again in standard definition and not enhanced for widescreen displays. Dead Silence joins Hollywoodland as the only day-and-date releases from Universal up to this point in 2007 to not make use of the studio's U-Control interactivity.

There are eleven minutes of deleted scenes, including footage that would've bookended Dead Silence with a candlelit ghost story and a much longer spin on the final twist. The three other scenes are anchored around the family groundskeeper, a character who was almost entirely gutted out of the final cut of the movie. Some of this footage -- particularly a less expository glimpse of how unrelentingly cruel Jamie's father once was -- would've worked well in the movie, but the ghost story told by mostly off-screen characters reminded me a little too much of Jack Frost (y'know, the one with the rapist snowman, not the schmaltzy flick with Michael Keaton), and the groundskeeper's kind of an empty void.

Three short featurettes round out the rest of the disc's extras. "The Making of Dead Silence" (12 min.) starts off like a lightweight electronic press kit, but it improves at least marginally from there, touching on how the movie's a nod back to the horror flicks of the '50s, the extravagant production design and the film's distinctly saturated visual style, a look at some of the elaborate make-up effects and the more dangerous stuntwork, the assembly of the trailer-worthy wall of dolls, and how the crew tackled building Shaw's remote theater in the middle of a lake.

Clocking in at six and a half minutes, "Mary Shaw's Secrets" also has an overly HBO First Look-ish promotional bent to it, opening with a recap of Shaw's backstory before settling into a few minutes' worth of production notes. The small army of cast, crew, and producers comment on how Judith Roberts wound up cast in the part, how the actress was paired with a seasoned ventriloquist to handle the heavy lifting of the Billy dummy, and the design of both Mary Shaw's undead make-up and her dark, dank living quarters.

The last of the featurettes is the grammatically questionable "Evolution of a Visual FX" (Uh oh! The truck have started to move!), and it spends four minutes on a shot of the crowd flooding into the Guignol Theater in the 1940s, running through the different elements involved and the various stages of rendering the effect.

Conclusion: Dead Silence tries to turn back the clock to the more atmospheric horror of decades past, but a bank of fog machines and millions upon millions of dollars worth of lavish production design can't prop up a story this anemic. Dead Silence isn't written or directed sharply enough to be as eerie or creepy as it sets out to be, and James Wan tries to make up for his shortcomings as a sophomore director by artlessly lobbing fistfuls of money at the screen. Routine, derivative, and dull. Skip It.

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