Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dead Silence

2.5/4

Starring: Ryan Kwanten, Donnie Wahlberg, Michael Fairman, Amber Valetta, Joan Heney, Bob Gunton, Judith Roberts, Laura Regan

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Horror Violence and Images

"Dead Silence" has a pretty nifty idea for a horror flick: a ventriloquist as a villain.  However, it stumbles in the execution.  The acting is subpar and the screenplay could have used another run through the computer.  Perhaps the rumored studio meddling was to blame.  Still, it's far from a disaster.

Jamie Ashen (Kwanten) has just gone out to pick up some Chinese takeout.  His wife Lisa (Regan) ordered it while he was trying to fix the sink, which was a futile endeavor, apparently.  When he returns, he finds her savagely murdered.  The local detective, a macho smart-ass by the name of Lipton (Wahlberg) thinks he's the one who did the deed.  But Jamie thinks otherwise.  He and Lisa received a mysterious gift shortly before she died: a ventriloquist dummy.  Now, in order to prove his innocence, he has to go back to his old town and unravel the mystery of the town's darkest secret: the murder of ventriloquist, Mary Shaw (Roberts).

"Dead Silence" feels like it was adapted from a Stephen King novel (it wasn't...it was from an original screenplay by director James Wan and his buddy Leigh Whannel).  You've got the small town with a shady past, you've got family dysfunction, nostalgia curdled with regret and evil, and so on and so forth.  Perhaps fittingly, the association with movies like "IT" gives it a bit of a firmer foundation.  Which is necessary, since the film's plot gets shakier the longer it goes on.

When he broke out in a big way in 2004 with "Saw," James Wan redefined the horror genre.  Gone were teen screams and mad slashers.  Instead, where sadistic psychopaths who scared the audience with the threat of pain and suffering.  While Wan moved away from the new genre he more or less created (dubbed "torture porn" by critics), he did produce the sequels.  With "Dead Silence," he inserted himself into the "ghost story" genre, within which he would give us such titles as "Insidious" and "The Conjuring" movies.

Few will deny that he has had a huge impact on the genre, and is one of the more reliable names associated with it (although I would put directors like Neil Marshall ("The Descent"), Scott Derrickson ("Sinister") and Ti West ("The Innkeepers") above him, though they aren't as prolific or consistent).  His work here is solid, but lacks the raw energy of "Saw" and the confidence and meticulousness of his later films.  Wan has a keen eye for atmosphere and loves to play with sound to put us on edge, but the film moves too fast for any real terror.  He knows better than anyone that in a ghost story, a slow, deliberate pace is essential.

Sadly, the acting doesn't impress.  Ryan Kwanten is flat as Jamie.  The "True Blood" star is so stiff that he resembles one of Mary Shaw's dolls.  Ditto for Donnie Wahlberg (brother of Marky Mark).  He's supposed to by this blustering asshole, but he lacks the presence, machismo and intensity to pull it off.  Much better are Michael Fairman as the sympathetic mortician, Amber Valetta as the new stepmother, and Bob Gunton as Jamie's father (with whom his relationship is not cordial).  Broadway legend Judith Roberts plays the notorious villain, Mary Shaw.

So the movie doesn't work.  While I can't in good conscience recommend it, I refuse to condemn it.  There's good stuff here, and those merely looking for a few chills in a ghost story that won't force them to leave the lights on for the next week, it'll do the trick.

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