Saturday, March 17, 2007

REVIEW: Dead Silence

As the writer/director/actor team of the money-printing "Saw" franchise, Leigh Whannell and James Wan can by now write their own ticket as far as the horror genre goes. Encouragingly, "Dead Silence," the duo's first non-"Saw" re-teaming is nearly a complete 180 in terms of tone and style; eschewing the previous franchise's post-industrial grit and Nu-Metal aura for lilting eeriness and old-school gothic dread that owes more than a little to early Stephen King. These are no one-trick ponies.

A lot is written these days about how the rising generation of popular filmmakers ground their frame of reference to much in other movies. While there's some merit to this criticism, it ignores the flip-side: Some genres, Horror especially, thrive on injections of fresh, er.. blood. And when trying to keep things fresh, a profound familiarity with what's already gone stale can be a good start on the way to something great. With "Dead Silence," Wan and Whannell have elected to try and re-energize one of modern horror's most irritating cliches: The practice of earning a cheap delay-scare by dropping out the ambient noise on the soundtrack moments before the "BOO!" and the big jump-chord. Amazingly, they've found a way to take this worn-out aural shortcut and make it a functioning part of the actual story: "Dead Silence's" central big-bad is a sound-hating spectre who's presence is signaled - both to the audience and to the characters - by the sudden cessation of all ambient noise. And it works! I'm in awe. What will they do for an encore, give a plausible explanation for all occurances of spring-loaded-cats?

The aforementioned spectre is the ghost of Mary Shaw, a Depression-era (or maybe post-WWII.. the actual time settings here are a little vauge) ventriloquist spinster who was murdered in an act of vigilante vengeance when she became suspected of kidnapping and murdering a local youngster who'd heckled a performance featuring her and one of her 101 wooden-dummy "children." She manifests in relative-proximity to her more-mobile-than-you'd-expect dolls, stalking the descendants of those responsible for her death. If you scream when you see her, she rips out your tongue and can then mimic your voice to mess with others.

Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) a onetime resident of the rather Silent Hill-ish blighted town at the epicenter of Mary Shaw's curse, finds his wife similarly mutilated after recieving a mysterious package containing Doll #57 ("Billy,") and heads home to get some answers about the mystery and how it connects to his (of course) wealthy and emotionally-distant father (Bob Gunton!) with a suspicious homicide detective (Donnie Whalberg) in tow.

To be honest, there's just a bit too much going on here; as though Wan and Whannell had several dozen different "angels" to take on making a scary ventriloquism movie and finally opted to just put them all into one movie. As a result, it's a little hard to pin down exactly what Mary Shaw is or isn't capable of. A great deal of setup is given to her behavior and burial requests, but the actual mechanics of things are fairly broad: At times she's a zombie, others a ghost. At times the dolls seem to be moving on their own, "Chucky"-style, other times they mainly exist as harbingers for their master. And I'm still not really clear on the how or why of Shaw returning to "life" as a being of such considerable supernatual powers in the first place.

But those are trifles, really, against the simple fact that the movie is a finely-made ghost story. The film is pulling gags and concepts from all over the horror landscape, yes, but at least it's being wise in it's cherry-picking: There's just enough eeriness, gothic murk, modern gore and old-fashioned jumps to make a well-rounded horror entry that's suitably scary and carries a substantial degree of mood - even if it does ultimately hurt for lack of a strong central presence of evil like Tobin Bell's "Jigsaw" of the "Saw" franchise (keep an eye peeled for Jigsaw's own puppet-pal among Shaw's collection.)

The bottom line is: It's a good spook-show, which is more than can be asked for most of it's ilk these days.

FINAL RATING: 7/10