Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Wednesday Horror: Dead Silence

Film: Dead Silence
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

There’s something unsettling about dolls. I think it’s the eyes. Because of this, dolls are a natural choice for horror movies. Dead Silence plays off that idea, upping the ante slightly by using not simply dolls but ventriloquist dummies. Since these are a step further into the uncanny valley—articulated jaws, movable eyes, etc.—they’re just that one more step creepier. Make them capable of moving on their own or being possessed and you’ve got a premise for a pretty standard horror movie with potential for some good scares.

We’re going to start with a scare, of course. Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) and Lisa Ashen (Laura Regan) receive an anonymous package one day. It turns out to be a ventriloquist dummy named Billy. Jamie goes out for take-out Chinese and Lisa plans a joke on her husband. But, of course, she’s attacked, and when Jamie returns home, he finds his wife dead with her tongue missing. Jamie, of course, is the main suspect, but police detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) doesn’t have enough evidence to hold him.

Jamie decides to head for home for some reason, to return to his estranged father (Bob Gunton) and his new, much younger wife Ella (Amber Valleta). Eventually, the story that we as the audience needs comes out. Years ago, the town was home to a woman named Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts). She was a fairly successful ventriloquist, but was unmarried and had no children. One day at a show, a young child commented that he could see her lips moving. Not long after that, the boy in question disappeared, and naturally Mary Shaw was the only suspect. The boy’s family (and a few other people) decided to get revenge on Mary. They cornered her, scared her until she screamed, and when she opened her mouth, they cut out her tongue before killing her.

The rest of the story that is necessary for what is happening is that (of course) Jamie is the last in the line of Ashens, and the boy years before who heckled Mary Shaw was his great uncle. There have been a series of people with their tongues ripped out, of course, and this has somehow been kept quiet, since our intrepid police detective has never heard of any of it. We get a lot of this from Henry Walker (Michael Fairman), the local funeral home director, who also drops the bomb on our hero: when she died, his father fulfilled Mary Shaw’s last request—she wanted to be turned into a doll herself, and she wanted to be buried with her dolls. Now, the legend goes, she only kills the people who scream when they see her.

It’s a decent enough set up for a horror movie, but it’s also rife with problems. The biggest is the inciting incident of the whole thing. Seriously, the whole thing happens because a performer gets a mild heckle from a kid, which evidently drives her to hunt the child down and kill him. The fact that when the kid disappears, she is literally the only suspect, and she’s the only suspect because he heckled her once and she evidently shut him down with the rest of her act. Seriously, what kind of psychopath kills a kid for a joke without giving any kind of indication of that level of mental derangement? What kind of plot demands that?

Honestly, Dead Silence is a pretty standard horror movie in a lot of ways. The scares come about when you expect them to and most of them are of the jump variety with an exception or two. Ultimately, that’s what is so disappointing about this movie. It’s lazy. Rather than giving us a plot that actually makes sense, the filmmakers went with the first thing they thought of that more or less made the plot work. Rather than build up any real sense of horror, it goes for the easy scares by having things jump out of the shadows and say, “Boo,” more or less. It’s just so lazy that I find myself frustrated by the lack of effort.

This is despite the fact that there is a natural creep factor built in. The movie even uses this a couple of times with the dolls moving on their own. Not much is done with that, though—we end up with some pretty lame CGI at the end, and an ending that doesn’t stray far from where you figured it would go. I’m disappointed in this. It had the potential to be something more, or at least something camp, but instead, it’s just…this.

Why to watch Dead Silence: Ventriloquist dolls are creepy.
Why not to watch: It’s so lazy.


  1. I haven't watched Dead Silence although it doesn't sound like the best puppet movie ever. I've seen a couple other similar movies. Magic (1978) featured an interesting early performance by Anthony Hopkins as a magician who has a creepy doll/puppet.

    1. Magic is one I need to get to; I bought a copy a couple of years ago for a couple of bucks, but haven't gotten to it. Right now, if I had to vote, I'd go for the Michael Redgrave story in Dead of Night, but I could easily be swayed.