10 Years: “Dead Silence”

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Some horror films can age well. Others, less so, and then, surprisingly, some manage to do what should be impossible; they get worse. Whatever made them scary or not just can’t do it anymore. There’s no fun to be had, no matter how hard you will it to be. And then there are those that upon a second look, turn out to be so much more than previously thought.

The Universal Pictures film “Dead Silence” even with all its problems, can still pull off some decent fear building, and for that, a decade later, it makes all the difference. It certainly clears up any mystery I’ve had over the past seven years, at least, where I’ve been uncertain of what I thought of this film. Now I know where it stands in the ever growing list of James Wan films. What’s even more amazing, is the fact that while this film will always be bad on so many levels, it can still serve as a way to learn and show why we’re getting the types of films from Wan that we are.

Hello Dolly

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The first crucial element with this film, like with any good horror film, is how it creates fear and ultimately scares its audience. With this film, that level of success falls in the middle and really depends on who’s watching. Some people are easily scared, which is something that still baffles me, and others need a lot of poking and prodding. This film, may be missing some amazing scares, but still succeeds enough with the same element that doesn’t allow for stellar scares in the first place.

It’s all about the creepy dolls. We know Wan and writer Leigh Whannell are quite capable of ushering in a creepy doll, but in so many ways, this takes that obsession a bit further. I’d say it even dwarfs the most recent examples we’ve seen in their films. But as I’m looking at this film 10 years later, and with at least seven years between when I last saw it, I can actually appreciate what was done with all the dolls created, especially, Billy. They’re all so well designed. There’s so much detail, that in so many ways, they’re kind of beautiful. They’re almost works of art. Whoever it was that was in charge of creating these dolls or overseeing the entire creative process, should be given more credit than what’s already been given.

It’s because of this work, in part, that makes this film worth it. I can’t stand creepy dolls, and yet, I love them all the same. Why? Well, which shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise, it all has to do with a little Good Guys doll named Chucky. He’s what has allowed me to be automatically afraid of creepy dolls, especially when they move on their own. Even watching “Child’s Play” or just clips on YouTube of Chucky moving around and terrorizing people, I become quite anxious and afraid. That’s how effective the use of creepy dolls is on me. It only takes moments, but it lasts far longer.

Which is exactly what happened with this film, and makes it become a much better viewing experience than I recall it being the first time. The suspense building, the fear, the anxiety of it all, was pretty overwhelming. Now, this could just be me, but for a film not well received in the first place, and I’d say mostly forgotten, it’s definitely allowing this film to sort of redeem itself. Certainly to me it is.

What did it for me first and never let me leave, was when Ryan Kwanten’s Jamie is back in his hometown, with Billy in tow, and he’s resting in his motel room. Slowly, and with relative silence, the camera moves through the room and makes its way over to Billy. Occasionally the film cuts to other sounds, but eventually it’s just silence. Once on Billy, which is a slow and nerve racking ordeal on its own, his eye’s start to move. The sound and the images are enough. Then, the tension continues and sets itself up for release. When it does, a proper and amazing response is able to be elicited from me. I’m beyond scared and on edge. It’s all just about too much. This type of set up is applied multiple times through out the film, and because of the previous scenes, it becomes more and more effective. I’m practically a basket case. Without this and my responding, I don’t think I’d find anything positive about this film. I also find that it’s this type of set up that makes the jump scares carry more weight. Sometimes the jump scares work individually, other times, they need some sort of good set up. I do find that there’s a difference.

One of the best things about revisiting this film, like with revisiting “Saw”, is that it allows you to better weigh the final film as a whole, and to weigh it against that which the writer and director have done over the past decade. It’s a lesson of sorts. This film, which is a pleasant surprise, is really a precursor to what Wan has been doing in his most recent horror films. While not as fine tuned as what was given in “The Conjuring 2”, you can see where he started. You know and understand his approach. The way to scare someone isn’t through annoying jump scares and gross out blood and gore, which there was very little of, but through suspense and fear building. It’s why he returns to it time and again. Because Wan could pull this off, I found myself not just terrified, but wanting to stick with it. I got invested in a way I wasn’t prepared for. So long as that remains true, not only will I always get excited about Wan’s next horror endeavor, but I’ll also be able to consider this a film well worth owning.

And because I really wanted to include this picture, here you go! Who can pass up a creepy clown picture? The suspense and fear that led to the moment depicted, is another example of how this film works its way under my skin enough. Definitely a pretty good way to set up the film’s lackluster ending.

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The Path To The End Is Paved With Cliches And Logic Issues

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While this film can sort of be saved by Billy and his band of creepy dolls and the decent execution of suspense and fear, it can’t do enough to make the entire film good. The film’s story, and the many smaller plot elements that make this film possible, just suck. Mainly because, they’re cliche and usher in some level of predictability. It’s what’s really expected when it comes to this type of mystery heavy horror film.

For instance, not only does Kwanten travel to creepy places in search of answers, where he just happens to find them, he also seeks and gets all the answers he needs from the all-knowing older man. For once I’d like one of these films to have answers that are difficult to find, perhaps even those that can’t be found at all because they’re so well hidden and the person searching just gives up.

Making things worse, no, aren’t really the characters, although they’re not exactly huge positives either, but it’s more the fact that these characters aren’t all that bright. Mostly, like with lots of horror films, they make stupid choices and show they can’t think logically. One particular instance, which seriously annoyed me and had me rolling my eyes and heaving a heavy sigh, is when Kwanten receives a phone call from someone who says they can provide evidence he didn’t commit murder. I don’t even feel I need to go further. If Kwanten had applied a bit of thought, he would’ve avoided the torment he went through. Mind you, it was because of this lack of logic that Kwanten was able to get more pieces to the big puzzle, so it was unavoidable.

There’s also the general and cliche nature of Donnie Wahlberg’s Detective Lipton. He automatically believes Kwanten killed his wife. In this case, based on what the film presented, I don’t find how that’s possible, so I can’t really side with the idea that Wahlberg’s just following the evidence and not going to simply believe in supernatural entities. If this type of character wasn’t a staple in most supernatural horror films, or episodes of “Supernatural” or other supernatural TV shows, I may have found him entertaining. Sadly, which I blame Whannell for, he just became this obnoxious detective looking for the truth about who killed Lisa Ashen.

While those bits are bad, nothing is as bad as the way the whole film is presented. It’s deliberately misleading. Just about the whole film is. I hadn’t realized this at first, and that’s what’s making this stick out even more. Unlike with “Saw” and “Saw II”, this film didn’t cleverly hide all the information you needed in plain sight, and would later surprise you upon a second viewing, but it was edited in such a way that you couldn’t even go back through and pick it up later. When the film gets to its “twist” ending, which I did not originally see coming, the quick cut montage of the truth reveals not simply the narrative truth, but the fact that the majority of the images are new to you. They weren’t in the film you’d just watched. Things that should make you go “aha!” can’t because they were never there. Not only was this “twist” one I should’ve seen coming, but it also makes the point and purpose of the twist meaningless. If Whannell had better thought out this particular part of the film, perhaps it would elevated this film a bit more than it did.

The still quite creepy trailer, in case you need a refresher:

Originally Released: March 16, 2007

Director: James Wan

Writer: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valletta, Donnie Wahlberg, Bob Gunton, Michael Fairman, Judith Roberts and Laura Regan

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