Thursday, April 7, 2016

Dead Silence (2007)

Poor Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten doing his usual decent if frequently open-mouthed nearly acting thing). Not only does an anonymous donator send him a package containing a creepy ventriloquist dummy but when Jamie’s away buying roses and food for his wife Lisa (Laura Regan), the ventriloquist doll and a supernatural presence it brought with it murder Lisa, rip our her tongue and pose her in the marital bed. I’d say poor Lisa, too, but given everything that’ll happen after her death, she has hit the jackpot through her early departure.

The investigating Keystone Kop, Detective Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), does of course go by the old rule of “the husband did it”, and understandably cares little about Jamie’s tales of how ventriloquist dolls are seen as a bad omen in the town he and Lisa came from, how it reminded Lisa of an old creepy children’s line about one Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts), or that Jamie heard Lisa’s voice calling him into their bedroom when she must have been already dead. Being a Keystone Kop, he does of course not follow up with a thorough investigation but will stalk and threaten Jamie for the rest of the film until he can’t escape the supernatural himself anymore. Jamie for his part brings Lisa’s body to their old home town to be buried.

There he’s attacked by various ventriloquism based horrors, and the doll-like old woman ghost of Mary Shaw herself, whom you can only fight off if you do not scream (though you seem to be allowed to shout stuff, unless it’s “noooooooo”). So Jamie will do a bit of investigating too and learn the tragic tale of an evil female ventriloquist, the search for the perfect doll, and encounter all kinds of creepy shit until the film culminates in a hilarious plot twist.

This is the film James Wan and Leigh Whannell rather seem to like to pretend doesn’t exist, which is a bit weird from the people responsible for the Saw movies, and jump scares. Consequently, as somebody who could care less about these guys’ body of work (or would like to, if only they weren’t so influential on mainstream horror), this is the one film they’re responsible for I actually think worthwhile.

It’s mostly the film’s inherent weirdness that gets me, its obsession with ventriloquist dolls, the audacity to actually use an idea as strange as a ghost ripping out her victims’ tongues and adding them to her own(!), and the rip-roaring, transcendent absurdity of its final plot twist. It’s a bit as if in mentally working their way up to the weird parts – which is to say, the good parts - of Insidious, Wan and Whannell had accidentally stumbled onto a mode of filmmaking not based on ruining weirdness with jump scare after jump scare after jump scare (after jump scare), but actually going with it, just putting one piece of weirdness after the next, not caring too much about a plot throughline as long as the as any given scene contains its quota of creepy strangeness concerning dolls, dummies and ventriloquism as living metaphors gone mad.

It’s pretty fantastic, really, with the film doing nothing at all to establish its world as anything else than a weird dream where mad women talk to stuffed ravens (while living in a town called Ravens Fair, obviously), where a US small town has a huge, now dilapidated, absurdly Gothic theatre on a lake that once belonged to a ventriloquist, and where a decade long series of murders by tongue-ripping has not made its way to any outside authorities despite the town clearly being connected to the outside world like any normal town. Visually, Wan here seems highly – and unexpectedly – influenced by Bava and Argento, keeping most of the pseudo-cool editing techniques and bullshit camera angles that made Saw so annoying in check. For once in his career, Wan successfully creates a mood of vigorous yet dream-like dread and bizarre horror and actually manages to keep it up for the whole of the film.

That the film’s narrative only makes the most basic of sense and that some of its ideas are as silly as they are strange seems neither here nor there to me when talking about Dead Silence, for making sense in this way doesn’t seem what it is aiming for at all. Instead Wan here continues the more Continental tradition of making films about the inexplicable that don’t try to keep it in check by explaining it too much. Of course, I’d not at all be surprised if the filmmakers themselves now see Dead Silence as a failed attempt at starting a Mary Shaw franchise. But then again, that’s not anything I need to care about.

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