Review: “Dead Silence”

2004’s “Saw” was a landmark in more ways than one. The sub-million dollar picture showed how two ordinary guys, in this case ex-students from Australia, came up with a clever spin on an old idea. Armed only with tenacity and ambition, they managed to pull it off – in the process creating a highly successful franchise.

Of course a lot of people were mixed on the film, but audiences loved it enough to come back for further and increasingly tedious and overdone sequels. The pair have been involved in producing and writing those subsequent entries, but “Dead Silence” marks their first real return to filmmaking since the original “Saw” and, again armed with the clever idea of exploring the retro creepy doll genre that spawned the likes of “Child’s Play,” “The Fear,” “Magic,” etc.

Sadly the verdict isn’t as rosy this time around as it was on “Saw”. ‘Silence’ is this year’s “Darkness Falls” – a good premise wasted in a mess of flat acting, minimal character development, and filmmaking which ranges between quirkily inspired and surprisingly clunky. Both Director James Wan and scribe Leigh Whannell bring the odd clever twist or shots into the mix (love that old fashioned opening credits), not to mention a surprisingly well thought out sound design (they’ve learned to dump the crap metal rock), but much of it is wasted as the rest of the film is so inert that we simply don’t care.

Most of that lack of energy comes from simply a tedious narrative. A young couple (Ryan Kwanten & Laura Regan) get sent a ventriloquist doll and soon after the wife is found dead. The husband heads back to his hometown, where the doll came from, to figure out who sent it and the origin of a poem that ties in with her death. From there it becomes essentially a hunt for the truth about Mary Shaw by searching through a lot of empty houses and talking with what seems to be the only four people that actually live in the town anymore.

Unfortunately that hunt, much like Nic Cage’s hunt for the girl in last year’s “Wicker Man”, is filled with long scenes of pretty much nothing (walking around cemeteries and old doll houses) that beg for a fast forward switch – scenes like these only work if they build suspense or mood, these don’t and serve only to drag out the pacing (when they’d be better served actually building some characterization). More effective is Shaw’s back story, her one scene on-stage and brief horrific appearance in a morgue are more interesting and entertaining than any of the scenes set in the present.

At times there is some effective atmosphere – the doll movement and first glimpse of Shaw through the neon-lit curtains of a rundown motel room scene is quite chilling for example. However Wan simply doesn’t seem to get that suspense is far more effective when understated or simply suggested. The creepy doll eyes movement is overdone way too much, same for the poem recitals.

Case in point is an attack in a cellar reminiscent of “Alien” – a really effective shot in which Mary has an inhuman creepy smile is ruined by a bad quick cut edit of an attack. By the time the killer dolls turn all mini-morphing terrors by the end – any chance of suspense is gone. Hell, at least the creepy dolls in “Barbarella” were a more tenable threat. A last minute twist is surprisingly clever, but far from enough to really save the picture and somewhat out of tone with the rest of the film.

Not much to note casting wise either – not helped by Wan’s key weakness which is an aptitude far more for the technical aspects than thespian aptitude. Muscular young Aussie hunk Ryan Kwanten, armed with an overdone American accent which occasionally cracks and deliciously tight clothing (the only reason I’ll be getting this HD-DVD), sadly falls flat – a real shame considering his far more interesting turns as a laid back beach bum on “Summerland” and a scheming jokester on “Home and Away” shows the guy has potential.

Donnie Wahlberg simply bores (unlike “Saw II” where he annoys), and Amber Valetta is simply unremarkable as the trophy wife stepmother. Only Judith Roberts as Shaw herself, and Laura Regan – best known as the star of 2002’s vaguely similar but FAR more effective “They” – breathe any life into this vehicle. Sadly, both only have one extended sequence each and are gone, leaving us with the undynamic male duo.

Horror has become a really unimaginative genre of late, for every occasional gem there comes a wave of increasingly vapid clones that just don’t deserve to exist. in the past ten years we’ve gone from comedy horror to Japanese supernatural remakes to torture porn with only about half a dozen really noteworthy films to highlight overall.

Wan & Whannell managed to deliver one of the few stand outs with “Saw”, and whilst ‘Silence’ is a welcome move away from the simply gross excuses for horror that imitators of “Saw” have been plaguing our multiplexes ever since with, it certainly isn’t an original or interesting enough a premise to kick start the genre in a new direction. It’s a good idea, but one that’s poorly executed in most aspects.