On the last In Defense Of entry, I turned the clock back to 2007 to take a look at the second of two films to come out that year from director James Wan, his vengeance-fuelled action drama Death Sentence. Putting aside his work on 2015’s Furious 7 and the upcoming Aquaman, Wan’s name has been synonymous with modern horror thanks to kicking off not one but three horror franchises in Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, and though Death Sentence was an attempt to try his hand at something different early in his career, 2007 also marked the year horror fans were given the chance to see what he could follow up the original Saw with in the form of Dead Silence.
As I discussed in my breakdown of Death Sentence, 2007 has essentially become the year we don’t speak of when discussing Wan’s career; thanks to the string of successes he’s had ever since, his one-two punch of Death Sentence and Dead Silence has effectively been buried. As both films neither lit up the box office or garnered much critical praise in the way that every other one of his directorial efforts has over the years, it really comes as no surprise that both films have fallen off the radar in the decade that’s passed by, but as I attempted to defend Death Sentence‘s merits the last time, so, too, would I argue that Dead Silence deserves its own re-evaluation now that more than enough time has passed.
Now, in case you haven’t seen the film yet or have merely forgotten what it’s about, here’s a quick refresher: After his wife, Lisa, is violently killed shortly after the arrival of a ventriloquist dummy named Billy on their doorstep, Jamie (played by Ryan Kwanten) connects the doll to a long-dead ventriloquist named Mary Shaw, an accused child murderer who just happens to have been from his own hometown of Raven’s Fair. Without wasting time, Jamie – who brings along Billy, of course – heads to Raven’s Fair for answers about what happened to Lisa, leading him down a path where the superstitions surrounding Mary Shaw’s legacy may carry some real weight.
Like Saw, Dead Silence‘s narrative is built around the element of surprise. The film itself barely runs an hour and a half, but the experience is loaded with twists big and small, with new information being doled out at just the right pace to keep you wondering how it’ll all inevitably click together. From the question of whether or not Mary Shaw was, in fact, a murderer or just grossly and falsely accused for simply being eccentric to how Jamie and his wife fit into her modern day plans and more, there’s a lot to constantly digest, which works for anyone simply looking to see how the puzzle pieces land but not necessarily for anyone hoping to find real substance within the film.
It’s an incredibly bare-bones affair with Dead Silence, and to a degree, that’s regrettable. Little time is spent letting the narrative breathe between set pieces, shock moments, and revelations, which means the handful of characters populating the film suffer from an incredible lack of characterization. Kwantan, for instance, comes off as lifeless as one of Shaw’s puppets, his character – who we should be rooting for as a grieving husband seeking answers and, hopefully, justice – existing more as just a piece on a board than as a fully-realized human being worthy of being the film’s lead.
With one exception, the only other person in the cast who at least tries to make their character stand out above the lack of material is Donnie Wahlberg, who plays a detective on Jamie’s tail who ultimately serves zero purpose in the film beyond providing a handful of bizarre moments in which he pulls out an electric razor and shaves himself. It’s just flat-out odd, like he’s stepping in from a slightly different movie, but it speaks to how little the rest of the cast is given here that he gets to stick out as a result of it.
Of course, as with all horror movies of Dead Silence‘s ilk, much can be forgiven so long as the actual evil being at the heart of the film is memorable, and while she may not get as much facetime as, say, Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger would, Judith Roberts’ Mary Shaw is quite an effective creation. Most of her appearances are fittingly fleeting, but Roberts really makes the most out of a flashback sequence to Shaw’s heyday in which she clashes with the young boy she’d go on to be accused of – and killed herself for – murdering during one of her stage performances. Arguably, simply by virtue of the fact that none of the other characters are really engaging in the way she is, the film could’ve used more of her, as it tends to shine brightest when she’s around.