Since launching one of Hollywood's most popular horror franchises three years ago, Saw creators Leigh Whannell and James Wan have kept a surprisingly low profile. Although both were involved with the Saw sequels (Whannell co-wrote Saw II and III, Wan passed the directorial reins over to Darren Lynn Bousman, but remained onboard as an executive producer), they devoted most of their attention towards creating new projects, beginning with this ghost story about the vengeful spirit of a dead ventriloquist.
Yes, you read that right. Originally shot in 2005, Dead Silence has been sitting on Universal's shelf for some time and it's not difficult to see why. This is a profoundly silly movie that makes very little sense and features all of the genre clichés that the original Saw tried hard to avoid. While it's possible that Dead Silence has been through substantial changes in the editing room over the past year, it's more likely that the dumb premise doomed the picture from the get-go. If the history of horror cinema has taught us anything, it's that ventriloquist's dummies are never, ever scary. Creepy, yes. But scary? No way.
The nominal story finds a personality-free twenty-something named Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) traveling back to his hometown of Ravens Fair after his wife is murdered. Although investigating officer Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) considers him to be the prime suspect in the case, Jamie knows that his bride's real killer is somehow connected to the legend of Mary Shaw, a ventriloquist who died under mysterious circumstances some 70 years ago. Since her demise, Ravens Fair's leading citizens have regularly turned up dead, their tongues ripped out and their faces twisted into an unnatural grin so that they resemble one of Mary's beloved dummies. These murders have been going on long enough that the town's only remaining residents appear to be the elderly mortician and his crazy wife. As Jamie plays supernatural detective, he learns that Shaw's spirit lives on in her wooden "children" and if you scream when she's in your vicinity, you'll instantly join her long list of victims.
Thanks to the grisly nature of the Saw series, Wan and Whannell are often mentioned in the same breath as filmmakers like Eli Roth and Greg McLean, the star pupils of the so-called "torture-porn" school of horror movies. Perhaps unhappy about being saddled with that reputation, they've chosen to keep Dead Silence relatively free of gore. There are still a few shots of bloodied bodies and yawning, tongue-free mouths, but overall nothing here is as off-putting as the extended brain surgery sequence from Saw III. The duo's apparent change of heart is welcome--it's just a shame that they aren't particularly talented at staging gore-free scares. There's a distinct lack of suspense to the proceedings that's due both to Whannell's laughably awful screenplay--which turns into a blatant rip-off of Wes Craven's seminal fright favorite A Nightmare on Elm Street about halfway through-and Wan's lack of visual imagination. The original Saw may not have been a great horror movie, but at least it was a great idea for a horror movie. Dead Silence is just a deadly bore.