Dead Silence (2007)

Hands up if you're at least a little bit scared by creepy ventriloquist dummies.

Everyone? Thought as much. So we're off to a good start. In a small town, legend has it that a one-time children's entertainer has turned boogeyman: a ventriloquist who lost her voice stalks the town's inhabitants in their dreams, and, if they scream, rips out their tongues. There's even a poem about her, which is scary in the way of most nursery rhymes. Of course, this is a horror film, so it's rather more than just a legend, and there's a lot more to the story of Mary Shaw losing her voice than that innocuous phrase implies...

On paper, Dead Silence is a great film - and an incredibly marketable one, too, since it's written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, the team behind the seemingly unstoppable Saw franchise. So why was its UK release buried almost without a trace? And why are all the reviews from the US so negative? Well, because it's a complete fucking mess of a film.

Aesthetically, it's quite stylish - blue filters and lots and lots of use of blood-red - though it's probably over-stylised; there's no subtlety to it. But the deliberate use of film noir tropes would be enjoyable if the script wasn't so jumbled. The lead character is Jamie Ashen, a young man whose wife has just been murdered in the trademark Mary Shaw manner - tongue ripped out, face frozen in an expression of adject horror - only minutes after a mysterious package containing a ventriloquist's doll was left on their doorstep. Remembering the legend, he heads back to his home town with his wife's body and the doll, seeking the truth. He finds that his once-abusive father has remarried and had a stroke, leading him to want to change his ways; and that no-one in the town will even speak the name Mary Shaw out loud. Cue the discovery of a hidden grave and lots of authentically aged newspaper clippings detailing dozens upon dozens of other deaths that look exactly like his wife's; Jamie, in the manner of most horror movie characters faced with an utterly illogical premise, starts tracking down Mary Shaw with the intention of stopping her ghostly killing spree for good.

It's possible that, with some better acting and marginally better dialogue, the above could have made for a proper old-fashioned ghost story that would have been thoroughly enjoyable, and that seems to have been what Wan and Whannell were going for. Unfortunately, they also felt the need to throw Donnie Wahlberg into the mix. I'm not sure why, because the addition of Wahlberg didn't exactly do wonders for the Saw franchise, but maybe he has some really good blackmail material on them or something.

In Dead Silence, Wahlberg plays the most incompetant detective ever to grace the screen. He fails to collect vital evidence; bullies the only suspect/witness he's got before letting him leave to travel halfway across the country; and forgets everything else he's said and done every time he appears. Weirdly, someone seems to have thought it would be an interesting quirk if he was using an electric shaver every time he appeared; oddly, his stubble never decreases, and if this means anything other than that someone was on drugs when they thought it up, it's beyond me. There is literally not one thing Wahlberg's character does in this film that advances the plot, or does anything other than waste a few more minutes of runtime.

The frustrating thing is that there are some really good ideas in Dead Silence; a creepy ghost story that could have made a great film combined with an amount of directorial flair. The scene where it's revealed what exactly is behind Jamie's father's change of heart is one of the scariest ideas imaginable, but it's tempered by the daftness of the rest of the film - a flashy theatre in a small town, in the middle of a lake formed in an abandoned quarry? Police who wantonly and deliberately ignore evidence in favour of ... well, nothing? The inevitable cameo by the puppet from Saw isn't flagged up as much as you'd expect, but everything else in the film is completely over the top, including the patented Saw/MTV quick cut denouement. Even so, the bare bones of the film are interesting and creepy enough that in other hands, it could have worked; but somewhere along the line, someone lost the plot, and so all that's left is a massive disappointment.

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