You know a filmmaker is good at what he or she does when, in ranking his or her films from favorite to least favorite, even the one that falls in the “least favorite” spot is still not only a great film on its own, but also better than the majority of everything in the genre. That’s saying a lot.
And that is exactly the case with James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s 2007 film Dead Silence. This film was the first post-Saw collaboration for Wan and Whannell, and as such had a lot to live up to, with the popularity and success of their debut film.
If someone were to go into viewing Dead Silence expecting another Saw-like film, they’d be very disappointed. Because that’s not what Dead Silence is at all. But going into it expecting to feel similar emotions to what they felt when they first viewed Saw (scared, intrigued, more than ready to know what’s going to happen next, highly entertained, and creeped out) then that’s an expectation that one might have met.
I have been asked multiple times by other horror nerds why I’m such a fan of Wan and Whannell, and why I like this movie. One of the things that I love so much about seeing movies by James Wan and Leigh Whannell is that they are really, really good at the hitting the ground running in their films. Not a moment is wasted; they jump right into the story. Dead Silence is no exception. We meet our main character Jamie Ashen, and the ventriloquist dummy, the center of our story, promptly appears. It takes less than 15 minutes to know that the dummy and the story that comes along with it really are something to worry about. It’s very easy to love this film from the beginning because it gives us and shows us what we need to know and see, and ONLY what we need to know and see.
The most common complaint I hear about this film is that the characters are boring; I couldn’t agree less. Every time I see the film, I’m impressed by how believably Ryan Kwanten, who plays Jamie, is at balance: he’s angry about his wife’s death without overacting, and he’s not stoic about it either (it’s always troubling how little concern people show for the death of loved ones in most horror movies); nor does he seem whiny as the neglected son. He strikes the perfect balance. Then there’s the hilariously irritating Donnie Wahlberg character. The way Wahlberg plays Detective Jim Lipton as someone who thinks he’s trying to find the truth, but really just wants to prove what he already believes to be true, and how irritating and cocky he is in every interaction he has with Jamie; it not only provides a sort of almost comic relief, but it just makes you more able to relate to Jamie because, as a viewer one, will feel just as burdened and annoyed by Lipton as Jamie is.
Non-fans of this film also review it by saying that it has very little action. Not only do I disagree with this, making the argument that it moves at a speed that is “just right” for the tone it’s going for; but I’d go so far as to say that even if I did agree, the movie wouldn’t be as good as it is if it moved any faster. This isn’t a Child’s Play, a killer doll movie, it’s almost a haunting film, a ghost story. It’s supposed to have slow-building tension. To the point where it’s almost agonizing. These kinds of tales aren’t supposed to be sped through. Every scene starts with a feeling of “what’s going to happen next?” and ends with a vibe of “ok, now what’s he going to do?” And anyone who’s seen a Wan and Whannell film knows that no matter the speed, you can just sit back and enjoy the ride because it’s all leading to something, and something big.
Which brings me to my final point. The twist ending. As is the case in most films with twists endings that get discussed, there will always be those who say “that was so stupid” or “I knew that was going to happen.” My response is always the same “Yeah, it’s easy to claim that after the fact, just like it’s easy to do some good old Monday morning quarterbacking.” I don’t buy that the twist was predictable. I know I didn’t see it coming. It actually made a lot of sense, when you go back and think about how twisted the entire story is. It tied the movie together nicely, and was a very solid way to wrap things up. Given that this was, again, the duo’s sophomore film after Saw, it’s natural that some might not appreciate the twist for what it is, because it wasn’t on the grand scale of the twist in their first film. But it didn’t need to be. I doubt they had any intention of topping that twist, anyway. Dead Silence just has a different kind of twist. At least for me, it left me with the same kind of reaction that I had when I watched Saw for the first time: it left me sitting on the floor, in front of my DVD player, with my mouth hanging open and my eyes wide with fear. At the very least, to the twist’s detractors, I say this: wasn’t it at least better than the played out, more-than-stereotypical horror movie endings of 1) the hero or heroine killing the villain, breathing heavy, and then walking out into the sunlight, or 2) the hero finally managing victory, after which the police show up, and we close on the hero wrapped in a blanket in the back of an ambulance, staring into the abyss?
So there’s all that. At the end of the day, Dead Silence is an enjoyable, even great, film that, for all it’s being the least popular film of the duo (at least among those I know), still manages to beone that scares me enough to make me watch it at least once a year. And for as much as I loved Wan and Whannell’s debut, this was the film that solidified me as a hardcore fangirl of theirs and made me determined to see everything that they would ever make.