Month of Horror 2017: Dealer’s Choice – James Wan: Dead Silence

10/02/2017 – James Wan: Dead Silence (2007)
Directed by James Wan

In 2003, two Australians (one born in Malaysia) made a 9 minute short on a shoestring budget in order to be able to pitch a full length version of this idea. While I will discuss that short more below, that pitch was successful and in 2004 that film was released and made over $100 million on a tiny budget. Perhaps no film has gotten a more unfair rap than that one has. That’s not to say it was perfect, it wasn’t, but it was a quality and tight horror thriller. The next six years saw six sequels of quickly declining quality that came to define both the franchise and horror of that era. It was proclaimed the death of horror and the latest in a long line of public “menaces”. By the end of the decade, a heavily hyped feud with another surprise franchise came to pass over who ruled October, and this franchise lost, with Paranormal Activity coming to influence the genre far more than it ever had. But the damage was done in the public’s eye and only recently has the public stopped equating a half a decade dead, massively overanalyzed subgenre with horror as a whole.

One of those two Aussies (and the director of both the short and film version) was James Wan and the film was Saw and while I feel I have railed enough against those who complained about “torture porn” enough above and before, it still hasn’t stopped people from dismissing it out of hand. Still, the Saw sequels and the far inferior Hostel titles defined late 00’s horror in the public eye and Wan’s influence (even as only a producer for the rest of the series and only even having a hand in the story for the third one) can’t be denied. Three years after the release of Saw, Wan finally made his first two follow ups to his career making hit. Death Sentence was a lackluster Death Wish wannabe and along with today’s movie Dead Silence was quickly forgotten.

As 2011 started, it would be easy to think that Saw was just a freak occurrence and that Wan was a one hit wonder. Instead he teamed up with Blumhouse Productions who had then been known for producing Paranormal Activity and by 2016 would be releasing 10 horror titles alone. Their low budget model has seen countless huge profit margins including Split and Get Out this very year. The film they made together, Insidious managed the rare feat (at the time) of being a horror film that was critically acclaimed and hugely successful (and great in my own opinion). 2013 saw him continue his success with yet another huge franchise in The Conjuring and a lackluster but moneymaking sequel to Insidious. Two years later and he’s directing one of the biggest films of all time (and his best movie, albeit one where the series probably jumped the shark) in Furious 7 and the following year directing a silly but successful Conjuring sequel. He had completed the well-trodden low budget horror to big budget action director (see also Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson or even yesterday’s Renny Harlin).

So with Jigsaw marking the return of Saw, let’s look at possibly Wan’s least known film aside from his pre-Saw effort Stygian. It reunited him with Sawwriter Leigh Whannell who would later go on to write The Insidious films and that’s only the beginning of the parallels. In fact, one would be forgiven for thinking that they were just trying to capitalize on the popularity of the puppet from Saw, but when one takes into account the presence of Annabelle from the Conjuring universe, it just seems like Wan is really into puppets and dolls. The presence of Saw sequel alum Donnie Wahlberg again playing a police detective, a similar Exorcist inspired repeated theme tune, a similar reveal or the big twist in the last few seconds, and the fact that a sequel was planned before the film disappointed all point to someone (or more probably a studio) trying to make lightning strike twice.

The film stars Ryan Kwanten, later of True Blood as one half of a couple mysteriously sent a ventriloquist dummy. Instead of just putting it back in the case and getting rid of it like a sane person, the woman actually keeps and plays with it and uses it to try and scare her husband. The woman is brutally murdered and her tongue is cut out and her husband is blamed by New Cop on the Block. He is released and head home, believing there is some connection to a poem he was read in his youth and the film quickly starts to reveal itself as some lost late 90s horror title. We get the mysterious messages, lots of dumb jump scares, a serial killer that has become part of a town’s folklore (killing people, posing them, and cutting out their tongues), hell even Kwanten looks like he never left that era.

Like those crappy 90s titles, the twists and reveals are dumb as hell. SPOILERS Turns our the dummy belong to a ventriloquist decades ago, when she died, she was buried with her dolls and by her request turned into one. None of that is really relevant since really it’s her ghost doing the murders as revenge for being killed as retaliation for her murder of a boy (why not throw in Nightmare on Elm Street to the “influences”) despite her disability of looking like something from those stupid early Youtube shock videos. This would be all fine if tedious (and boy is this film tedious), but then the film decides to throw in yet another twist by having the boy’s father’s new wife having been possessed or whatever by Mary Shaw or the resurrection of her, or I really have no clue. Also the father was a puppet the whole movie. END OF SPOILERS

The three most common fates that befoul a director (or any creator) following up his breakthrough smash are making a film that is so different that at the time it disappoints and underachieves, we get what feels like a lesser version of the same film, or we get something bland that is attempting to be more mainstream once that director falls into the studio system. This is certainly not the first and not some missing classic and it has some aspects of the second, but really this is the third type. The first Saw may have led to controversial subgenre but it was at the very least distinctive and something new regardless of whether you like it or not. Dead Silence on the other hand, even with its stab at insanity, just comes across as what happens when you force a genre breaking director to try and meld the surface elements of his style with what had been the mainstream before he came around. They may have seemingly nearly ended his nascent career (or almost sent him to the DTV ghetto) but I’m sure James Wan is happy in many ways that Dead Silence and Death Sentence have basically been forgotten by the public at large because neither is some underappreciated classic.

Bonus Episode #S-1 – James Wan: Saw (2003)
Directed by James Wan

Well here’s the short that started it all. Just like in the film, a person (this time a man) is abducted on the way home from his job at the hospital and wakes up in the famous jaw reverse beartrap from the first film and is forced to dig the key out of a person to escape. Billy the Puppet is here with his tricycle, as is writer Leigh Whannell in the main acting role albeit a different one than before, and the whole point is about teaching someone to appreciate life. It really is just an even lower budget version of the small, somewhat disconnected part of the first film but it’s impressive to see how recognizable the style and effects are even then. It’s more a curiosity than anything else though.

Bonus Episode #S-2 – James Wan: Doggie Heaven (2008)
Directed by James Wan

After the dual failures of Dead Silence and Death Sentence, Wan and Whannell made a short the following year and then nothing until Insidious. This is that short and is nothing like the rest of their work. Sure the effect of the dead dog is gory as heck, but it’s a goofy black comedy that looks like something made by a film student. It’s got the goofy sound effects not seen anymore outside of a Darren Lynn Bousman film (he did direct the first 3 Saw sequels), an immature sense of humor, and really feels like someone who was really convinced they had a cool idea for a short but nothing else. In retrospect, it’s an interesting diversion and likely something they wanted to do low key after venturing into the studio world but I can’t say that made it anything fun to watch. I’m sure it served its purpose in some shorts compilation that needed filler between the more self-serious entries.

Next up: I suck it up and just watch It already and determine whether it was just a really awful trailer or the whole world has gone mad. All signs point to this being a two things scenario.

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