TRANSMISSIONS TO EARTH: DEAD SILENCE (2007)
Review by L.L. Soares
Just who is Mary Shaw and why does she love puppets so much?
For the answer to those questions, you’ll have to check out DEAD SILENCE from 2007.
Directed by James Wan, who gave us such movies as the original SAW (2004) and, more recently, INSIDIOUS (2010), DEAD SILENCE is the story of ventriloquist Mary Shaw and her collection of dolls. Just don’t call them dummies!
There is a long history of fascinating films about ventriloquist dummies. Dating back to 1929’s THE GREAT GABBO, a personal favorite of mine, where Erich Von Stroheim plays a ventriloquist whose dummy, Otto, ruins his work and his personal life, to the classic dummy story from the 1945’s DEAD OF NIGHT (featuring Michael Redgrave as a man haunted by his dummy), to 1978’s MAGIC, starring Anthony Hopkins as yet another ventriloquist at odds with a hostile/jealous dummy (and one of the few cases where the commercial was even scarier than the actual movie!) It’s a subgenre I’ve always enjoyed.
DEAD SILENCE isn’t exactly in the same league as those films, but it does get some things right. First off, it’s very atmospheric.
It begins with Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten—who you might know better as Jason Stackhouse on the HBO series TRUE BLOOD) and his wife Lisa (Laura Regan) in their new apartment. The buzzer rings and Jamie finds a mysterious package outside their door. Inside is a creepy-looking dummy, in a box that looks like a coffin. Jamie is perplexed (who would send such a thing to them?) but the couple doesn’t seem particularly disturbed by it. Lisa even makes plans to scare Jamie with it when he returns from getting takeout food for their dinner—except something happens and she ends up dead before he gets home. Her jaw is cracked open like a dummy’s and her tongue has been removed, when he finds her—sitting up in bed the same way she had posed the dummy to scare him.
Jamie goes back to his old hometown of Ravens Fair to bury his wife—it seems she’s from there, too, although we don’t meet any of her relatives there. There he visits his estranged father, who has recently had a stroke, and the man’s new young wife, Ella (Amber Valetta). He also has a cop on his trail, Detective Lipton (Danny Wahlberg, who has been having a decent acting career since his days in New Kids on the Block). Lipton seems to be following Jamie, and keeps popping up when least expected. He almost seems like a comic-relief character in some scenes.
Intent on figuring out who sent the dummy to him, and what it had to do with the death of his wife, Jamie delves into the legend of Mary Shaw, a creepy old ventriloquist who was killed by an angry mob that blamed her for the disappearance of a child (in a flashback reminiscent of a similar scene in the ”origin” of Freddy Krueger from the original 1984 version of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET). Shaw vowed to silence the men who killed her, and their descendants, just like she was silenced (thus the movie’s title). The murders attributed to her curse leave a string of corpses with doll-like hinged mouths hanging open without tongues inside, posed in strange ways. An effective image.
The film leads up to a big showdown in the ruins of Mary Shaw’s old “theater” – a decrepit mansion where Jamie and Detective Lipton find out what happened to the 101 dolls that Mary Shaw insisted be buried with her. If that sounds odd, what about the other part of her burial demand – that her corpse be made into a doll as well!
There were several times when DEAD SILENCE reminded me of classic Dario Argento films. From the use of surreal imagery and strong atmosphere to the Goblin-esque synthesizer score in some scenes, to a scene toward the end where Jamie finds himself in a basement room submerged in water that seemed like a nod to Argento’s INFERNO (1980). There are also scenes where Mary Shaw’s corpse moves around much like the witch from “The Drop of Water” segment from Mario Bava’s 1963 horror anthology film, BLACK SABBATH. So it seems like James Wan might be a big fan of classic Italian horror films.
Despite mostly strong acting and an effective use of atmosphere, however, there isn’t much in the way of scares in DEAD SILENCE. If you’re afraid of dummies, then this movie will play on those fears, but if not, you won’t feel the chill as much. The “twist” ending is clever enough, but won’t be giving me nightmares anytime soon.
I liked the look and feel of DEAD SILENCE, but I wasn’t crazy about the big showdown scene taking place in a house without electricity (with just a flashlight to clue us in). Still, this was a film that at least tried to be something different in an age of retro-slashers and paranormal activities. I liked that the dummy (and Mary) “stole the voices” of their victims and how Mary’s hand-written journals give instructions for “Making the Perfect Doll,” that take a particularly creepy turn.
Not a great movie, but a somewhat enjoyable one, despite its flaws. Worth a rental, at least.
© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares