Do you suffer from automatonophobia -- an unhealthy fear of dolls and other self-operating...things? Well, I do suffer from it a bit. One of my most vivid night terrors of recent years involved my wife's collectible Pee Wee Herman doll skittering to life and attacking me while I slept. Although -- now that I think about it -- I'm not certain if I was terrified because a doll came to life and assaulted me in that nightmare, or because it was Pee Wee Herman doing the attacking. But never mind: I just don't like dolls. I'm still traumatized from that moment in Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982) with the clown doll under the bed...
If you suffer from this pre-existing condition -- a fear of dolls -- I suppose the effectiveness of the 2007 horror film, Dead Silence gets ratcheted up by quite a few degrees. This horror film from the producers of Saw involves, among other things, a ventriloquist's dummy named "Billy" who has an uncomfortable way of staring you down. And that's just when he isn't popping around doing the murderous bidding of his mistress of the damned, a dead witch named Mary Shaw. In Dead Silence, these villains combat a young man named Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten), who, after the death of his wife, Lisa, hopes to learn the secret of Mary Shaw in his desolate, half-abandoned home town, Raven's Fair.
Dead Silence opens with the old-fashioned, black-and-white logo of Universal Pictures from the 1940s, and this is an entirely appropriate touch. For much of its running time, the film plays out like a good, scary horror film of that historical era. To heighten the connection, the makers of the film have de-saturated the movie's color palette to such a degree that mostly silvers and grays pre-dominate. Oh, and blood red too...which comes in handy in the final act.
But when the much-too courageous Jamie walks a lonely graveyard by moon light, the image on screen is almost entirely black-and-white, and again, successfully evokes the chilling style of yesteryear. This visual approach reflects the specifics of the narrative, because 1941 is the year of Mary Shaw's debut at a "Lost Theater" in Raven's Fair. We see this event played out in an ultra-creepy flashback; one in which a child heckles Mary Shaw and her "dummy" on stage, only to face the witch's wrath.
And that brings me to another point about Dead Silence that I admired. The plot (and the scares, too...) seem to reach right down in the well of childhood; to that dreamy, half-forgotten place where irrational dread lurks..and flourishes. It's the fear that -- as you sleep -- your human-looking toys actually have a life and agenda of their own. And that they are watching you, as you shiver under the bed covers and contemplate their presence just feet away...
The film even provides a childhood poem that, much like Freddy's jump rope song in The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (One, two, Freddy's coming for you...) tells of a "real" terror in terms a child understands: a fairy tale, a song, a lullaby. Unfortunately, Dead Silence also steals Freddy's back-story and motivation for Mary Shaw. After she is murdered by the towns-people for her bad behavior, her evil spirit returns (along with the monstrous dolls...) to avenge her; delivering the sins of the fathers and mothers upon the heads of the children.
The third act of Dead Silence is disastrously and inextricably bad given what has led up to it (too much Donnie Wahlberg, if you ask me...), but despite this, many aspects of the film still achieve a real sense of grotesque horror. The opening twelve minutes of the picture -- in which Jamie and his wife Lisa are interrupted by the delivery at their doorstep (not a baby, but a ventriloquist's dummy named Billy...) -- are superb: a mini-classic set-piece that elicits real chills and goosebumps. The director, James Wan, proves remarkably skilled at manipulating foreground and background elements in his compositions in a manner that will make you anxious and disturbed. The movie's sound design also assists enormously in generating a mood of terror . The "Dead Silence" of the title is a sort of "draining away of all noise," a phenomenon that occurs at the inauguration of all supernatural events in the film. The sound slows down, fades away, and we're left in still, portentous quiet, aware that the next strike is due any second.
Another scare scene in a motel room -- lit neon red -- and the virtuoso surprise ending also significantly boost the film's quality, even though the central performances are only adequate, and the storyline drags badly in the final third of the movie.
If you're looking for an interesting modern companion piece to Devil Doll (1964) or the non-supernatural Magic (1978), Dead Silence delivers. If you're not really bothered or unnerved by ambulatory, big-eyed dolls, however, your mileage may vary.