by David Cornelius
It’s not that killer dummies are silly. Really. I mean, I’m quite happy with a whole lot of silliness in my horror movies. After all, one of my favorite monster flicks is “The Blob,” which was about alien jelly that swallowed people whole, and come on, that’s just silly. So no, it’s not that “Dead Silence” is about ventriloquist dummies possessed by a vengeful spirit, which is quite silly indeed. It’s what happens next.You see, after a bit of text informing us that the word “ventriloquism” comes from the act of communicating with the dead (!), the movie opens with a happy couple finding a dummy at their door one evening. Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) and Lisa (Laura Regan) sure didn’t order any dummy, but OK, if one is to pop up with no return address, yeah, let’s keep the thing. Which is a bad idea: while Jamie runs to grab some Chinese takeout, Lisa discovers that the doll comes to life and kills you, tearing your tongue out in the process.
"Makes about as much sense as ventriloquism on the radio."
Enter Detective Donnie Wahlberg, who wonders if Jamie is the killer. It was the doll, Jamie insists, or perhaps the doll was sent by the one doing the tongue-pulling. Besides, ventriloquist dummies are a bad omen, a sign of pure, relentless evil, at least in Jamie’s hometown. Which begs the question: if Jamie’s hometown legend involves killer ghost dummies, why bring the thing inside? Why would Lisa, who also grew up in the same hometown, not even know of this superstition? And how is it Detective Donnie Wahlberg is always shaving with his electric razor (an odd character quirk, added for comic relief), yet he is never seen without a five o’clock shadow?
Ah, but the questions rest in Jamie’s hometown, a sleepy mountain town named Ravens Fair, apparently just down the road from Darkness Falls. You’ll recognize the regional dialect and exact same plot. So Jamie leaves the big city to return home and investigate, and here, dear reader, is where things go outstandingly, insanely, unbearably silly: on the car ride into town, Jamie props the dummy up in the passenger seat, and later, in the motel, Jamie lets the dummy sit in a chair and look out the window.
For a guy terrified of signs of pure, relentless evil, he’s pretty darn courteous. Me, I’d toss the thing in the trunk, or in the trash, or maybe I’d just let Detective Donnie Wahlberg hang on to it for a while.
Of course, a complete lack of logic seems to be the main trait of natives of Ravens Fair, a town that dried up when the local ventriloquist died, effectively ending its reign as the area’s largest single-act vaudeville-based economy. The ventriloquist was Mary Shaw, who murdered a boy because he heckled her once during a show. (And to think Michael Richards does badly with a tough room.) The townsfolk got their revenge by killing her, but oh, she came back, or her dolls did, or something, and everyone who killed her - and their families - got killed off, except for a lot of people that didn’t yet, because when you’re the ghost of a dead ventriloquist, you’re not too concerned with rushing things. You’re casual.
The townsfolk dare not say her name, we are told, and their vow of silence is so serious that they talk about her all the time, only occasionally remembering to hush each other. They dare not say her name to the point of making up a nursery rhyme about her, which says her name a lot. It also tries to rhyme “Shaw” with “dolls,” and I suppose those are the kind of people that would put omens of pure evil in the passenger seat. Maybe it helps with the car pool lane or something.
The majority of the film finds Jamie (who seems to have gotten over the loss of his wife rather quickly) driving around town, burying dolls, breaking into abandoned theaters, running from Detective Donnie Wahlberg’s five o’clock shadow, asking lots of questions about this town legend that has everyone so spooked (a legend you’d think he’d know if he knew about dummies being evil, but hey, whatever), and generally having no game plan in relation to defeating the undead.
All of this is then capped off by an ending so hilarious, so inane, so absolutely ridiculous that it could only have come from the idiots that made “Saw.” You remember “Saw.” Cary Elwes and Danny Glover overact for ninety minutes, we giggle pretty much nonstop, then this trick ending comes out of nowhere and challenges the very existence of the phrase “makes sense to me.” And those guys that made “Saw” - writer Leigh Whannell and writer/director James Wan - did indeed make “Dead Silence.” And wouldn’t you know it, the finale to “Dead Silence” is even dumber than the finale to “Saw.” It’s a so-called surprise that will shock viewers only because it has no bearing on anything that comes before it, is completely lacking in logic, and, most importantly, has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the rest of the story. Shock endings are meant to challenge one’s perception of all that came before; this one merely challenges one’s ability to stifle a chuckle.
For all the abundant absurdity that seeps through every single page of the screenplay, I will admit to a very few things that actually go right. For starters, the look of the thing is quite nifty, with the autumnal backwoods town having a nice rustic look. (Logically? No. Why would the town’s richest man roll around in a wheelchair made in 1874?) The filmmakers employ a trick in their ghost attacks: before you’re nabbed, sounds vanish from your senses, adding a creepy silence to each horror scene; it’s a smart move, or, at least, it is before they use it twelve times too many and test our patience with the same gimmick. (The sloppy rules of the thing - some sounds go, some stay - become more and more noticeably flawed with each use.) And kudos to Wan and Whannell for not just sticking with tired “Saw” retreads for the next decade, considering how much money that unbelievably popular series has made for them. They’re branching out, trying something new, and good on ’em for the choice.Except, it seems, that no matter how they attempt to break free of previous successes, they’re still stuck telling stories that are amazingly daft. “Dead Silence” will have you howling not with fright, but with laughter. How silly.
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originally posted: 03/22/07 21:26:19