Saturday, June 20, 2009

'Dead Silence' fails because it tries to hard

Dead Silence (2007)
Starring: Ryan Kwanten, Donnie Wahlberg, Michael Fairman, Amber Valletta, Judith Roberts, and Bob Gunton
Director: James Wan
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Jamie's wife is murdered in their locked apartment shortly after they recieve a package in the mail containing an antique ventriloquist dummy and a traveling case. When the investigating detective (Wahlberg) zeroes in Jamie (Kwanten) as the only possible suspect, Jamie returns to his hometown of Raven's Fair to bury his wife and to look for clues for who may have murdered his wife. He finds a town that's literally being killed off by the vengeful ghost of ventriloquist Mary Shaw (Roberts)... a ghost that he must stop, before he comes its final victim.

"Dead Silence" is a movie I really wanted to like. First, because when it appeared in theaters it had been a while since I've seen a good horror flick on the big screen. As it turned out, I would have to wait even longer.

Acting-wise, everyone does a pretty good job. The performances are cheery and light in the film's first minutes, and appropriately somber and subdued when the action moves to the dying, American Gothic village of Raven's Fair. (Wahlberg is a little bit of an odd man out, but when his hardboiled detective character bursts into the proceedings in the almost dreamlike atmosphere that's settling over the film as Jamie starts his quest for answers, he adds life and color that heighten the strange air surrounding everyone else in the film.)

The soundtrack music is also appropriately spooky, and the design of the film's mostly cool, washed-out color scheme--with Wahlberg and Jamie's red car being the only exceptions--also lend tremendously to the atmosphere of dread that could build to intense levels in "Dead Silence".

Yes. I said "could." Despite good performances by the actors, despite a good story, despite a really cool and potentially impactful "tell-tale" whenever the movie's monster is about to strike, despite some solid production design, the film simply can't measure up to other truly good horror movies.

Unfortunately, the film tries too hard to be scary for its own good at many times, crossing the line from suspenseful and dread-inspiring to eye-rollingly heavyhanded and unintetionally funny time and again. In fact, it's not any one big thing that ends up making this a below average fright-fest... it's a myriad of little things that ultimately drag the movie down.

In some ways, the modus operandi of the film's murderous ghost becomes the movie;s weakest element, because the filmmakers treat the audience like morons and goes at it with absolutely no subtlety. Or maybe the filmmakers didn't think the audience were morons... perhaps the director and foley artists simply didn't have the talent to pull off the concept. (Why assume malice where incompetence can explain something?)

Whenever the ghost of Mary Shaw is lurking about hoping for an excuse to rip someone's tongue out, sound first seems to slow, then vanishes completely, except for whatever sound the intended victim makes. In some instances, this is very creepy, but in others it's overdone. The sequence with Mary under the funeral home is completely ruined due to an excess of creaking and groaning wood. If my house made that much noise, I'd get the hell out, because it's about to collapse.

More than once, the filmmakers also goes over the top visually. The filmmakers work very hard at portraying Raven's Fair like the ultimate spooky town that oozes gothic vibes and mystery from every creeper-vine covered brick in every creepy-looking house. But, for example, the melodramatic images of an arriving hearse are so overblown that they inspire mirth rather than sorrow or dread. The film repeatedly feels more like it's parodying a horror movie than being a horror movie--and such moments are definately due to incompetence, because they are definately not intentional.

The film also overuses a particular fade technique, and they use it particularly badly when Jamie first returns to Raven's Fair; it's not spooky or creepy or useful to have the town sign animated for several seconds before fading into Jamie's red car cruising across the bridge... it's bewildering, destracting, and ultimately bad filmmaking. (A similar dissolve is used more effectively later when a map of the area surrouding Raven's Fair dissolves into an aerial shot of Jamie driving down the actual road on the map.)

There are some things that work very well in the film, which is why it manages to hang in there on the low side of average. Just about everything that happens in Jamie's ancestral home (where he meets with his estranged father (Gunton) and his new stepmother (Valletta)--a woman barely older than he is) and everything that unfolds in and around the Guignol Theatre on Lost Lake is also expertly done.

The scenes and action at these locations provide all the pieces that play into the film's unfolding mystery of Mary Shaw and the supernatural curse hanging over Raven's Fair. They also provide all the clues that allow the attentive viewer to guess the fillm's Big Reveal before the filmmakers get there. I figured out where they were going fairly early on (with one minor wrong assumption... ask in a reponse to this message if you care to know what that was, because I will be giving a spoiler if I say what that assumption was), but it didn't ruin the movie for me.

The ending was so well handled, and the clues toward the Big Reveal so well placed that the satisfaction of having guessed correctly was not unlike the sensation of having puzzled out a mystery ahead of a story's conclusion. In fact, the ending could have been flawless (and perhaps even pushed the film back up to the high end of average) if the director hadn't chosen to go over the top with one last bit of overblown "horror" that ends up unintentionally funny. I suspect the filmmakers thought they were giving us one last "gotcha" scary moment, but all they provided was a silly cliche. (The denoument is also somewhat nonsensical, but it's thematically appropiate, so I could have forgiven it.)

In the final analysis, "Dead Silence" emerges as a clumsily made horror film that feels like it was created by a crew that had no faith in themselves or the audience.

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