Flickhead
DVD Review
By Ray Young

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Dead Silence

Produced by Gregg Hoffman, Oren Koules and Mark Burg. Directed by James Wan. Screenplay by Leigh Whannell, from a story by Mr. Whannell and Mr. Wan. Music by Charlie Clouser. Edited by Michael N. Knue. Production designed by Julie Berghoff. Cinematography by John R. Leonetti. With Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valletta, Donnie Whalberg and Bob Gunton. 91 minutes. Released in 2007 by Universal Pictures.

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    Chockablock with clichés straight out of an old William Castle movie—possessed ventriloquists dummies, a skeletal ghost lady, and the clever ‘if you scream you die’ gimmick—Dead Silence follows a young widower in pursuit of his wife’s killer. She was found shocked to death and her tongue removed. The investigation takes him back to a childhood hometown fallen to ruin, the stalled relationship he weathers with his dad (a dead ringer for Criswell), and a curse hanging over the locals. “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw,” they say. She’s out to take revenge on the descendants of those who lynched her decades ago, and it starts with extracting the tongue.
    Directed by James Wan from a screenplay by Leigh Whannell (based on a story by Wan), the film runs contrary to much of what now constitutes the horror genre. Given the current vogue for self-conscious ‘dark’ shock dramas and loony Asian hack-‘em-ups, Dead Silence will undoubtedly be castigated by the target demographic for being too quaint, hopelessly linear and retro, down to the vintage black and white Universal logo used in the opening. Seen with a lot of popcorn and no lofty expectations, however, Dead Silence can also be a welcome throwback to ‘50s- and ‘60s-style Saturday matinees, fortified with contemporary makeup, editing and audio technology.

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Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) performs with Billy.
(Image Copyright © Universal Pictures)

    Wan and Whannell previously collaborated on Saw (2004), something I’ve yet to catch up with. Ever since the 1970s the genre has become increasingly violent and oppressively mean-spirited, alienating old farts like myself who still get jazzed over Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) and Vincent Price sending people off the deep end in House on Haunted Hill (1959). After Tobe Hooper’s skillful and scary Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), the horror film in general has felt, more often than not, redundant and unnecessary.
    (This is not to say that I’d given up entirely. After ghosts and monsters were supplanted with raw physical pain—the legacy of Hiroshima and Vietnam—there have been notable exceptions: Peter Medak’s The Changeling [1980], Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project [1999] and Chris Kentish’s Open Water [2003] retreated to the safer but more engaging harbors of unseen forces and less bloodshed; Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 (1987) combined camp with wit; Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs [1991] was somber and playful; and such comical would-be dreck as Jason X [2001] and Alien vs. Predator [2004] gave momentary hope for an old school Saturday matinee renaissance.)
    Dead Silence returns to basic character-driven narrative. By not targeting any particular plot hooks in a script laced with many, Wan avoids a minefield of potential boredom. The creepy doll introduced at the beginning is used sparingly (eliminating any unfair comparisons with the psycho dummies of Dead of Night [1945], Devil Doll [1964], Magic [1978] and the Chucky movies), while the killer ghost is imbued with enough secrecy and dread to intrigue anyone with a sense of humor. In its bid for simplicity, the characters are stock and the situations rigged, making the success of Dead Silence dependent upon how much disbelief you’re willing to suspend. And though one shouldn’t admit these things in public, it had me spooked and amused from beginning to end.