The classic Universal logo -- the one with the aeroplane circumnavigating the globe -- opens the studio's newest horror film, Dead Silence. It's a clever way to tell the audience "Look, you're not about to get your typical quick-cut hack & slash fest here. Despite the fact that Dead Silence is the second feature film from the man who directed Saw, we think you should try and settle into an 'old-school chiller' vibe with this one." And it's true: For much of Dead Silence's brief but deliberately-paced running time, the flick feels a lot like something that would have hit the screens back in 1952. (Or maybe whittled down into an episode of The Twlight Zone.) Whether or not the younger Saw maniacs will actually appreciate this diversion from formula remains to be seen, but as a guy who's just young enough to dig Saw, but certainly old enough to remember my black and white "creature double feature" TV marathons, I found just enough to enjoy in this one.
Ryan Kwanten plays Jamie Ashen, a young husband who loses his wife during a fairly chilling prologue. Basically, a creepy old ventriloquist's dummy is left on the Ashens' doorstep, Jamie heads out to get some Chinese food, and returns to find his pretty young wife ... in a really unpleasant state. This tragic event, combined with some insensitive accusations from police detective Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), inspires poor Jamie to hit the road and revisit his withered old hometown of Raven's Fair. It's there he comes across his estranged old dad (Bob Gunton), a hot new stepmother (Amber Valletta), a terrified mortician (Michael Fairman) and his strangely off-kilter wife (Joan Heney).
Anyway, it seems that the population of Raven's Fair is trapped beneath an old curse laid down by a creepy old ventriloquist lady and the 101 dummies she keeps locked away deep inside the Guignol Theater. Like I said, the screenplay feels like full-bore Universal chiller of the 1952 vintage. That's not to say that Dead Silence doesn't have its problems, but I really enjoyed the "classic Universal" vibe -- especially coming from the two maniacs who conspired to create the carnage-intensive Saw series. Obviously Dead Silence is not much more than yet another "desperate search through a haunted town" concept, but I say the good bits outweigh the bad here. Wan continues to express his fear for all things marionette-related, Whannell doles out eerie ideas and a few cool twists, and the whole thing wraps up with a strangely satisfying capper.
Lead actor Kwanten does all he can to a) carry a whole movie and b) mask his Aussie accent. He succeeds only intermittently at both. The supporting cast is another story. Gunton and Valletta make for a perfectly odd duo, veteran character actor Fairman makes the most of a fairly meaty role, and Donnie Wahlberg adds some sarcastic color to the fairly sober proceedings. Wan shows off some pretty nifty transitional techniques and does a fine job in the flick's creepier moments, but there are some pacing issues. Although it clocks in at a scant 88 minutes, Dead Silence sometimes feels like it's spinning its wheels or biding its time until the arrival of the Act III Revelations & Shocks Marathon.
But all those creepy old horror flicks took a few reels to get rolling, which only bolsters my opinion that Wan and Whannell were going for a true-blue old-school chiller flick with Dead Silence. It's certainly not a flawless horror film (I suspect that many of the Saw disciples may simply dismiss it outright) and it may get just a little dry (and/or silly) here and there, but if you're in the mood for a Saturday afternoon-ish throwback thriller, you could certainly do a hell of a lot worse than this one. Maybe it's just because I've recently suffered through The Messengers, The Abandoned, Hannibal Rising, The Hitcher, Primeval and Blood and Chocolate that I enjoyed the spooky stylings of Dead Silence more than I expected to -- or maybe it's just a half-decent little horror flick, no more and no less. (And those who find dolls, dummies and marionettes the pinnacle of all things horrifying will probably dig the movie even more than I did. Frankly I think they're kind of goofy.)