It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.
It sounds ridiculous to say that there are some movies I wished I liked more. Of course, I wish that of every film I watch, I just rarely take the time to think or articulate that simple desire. But I find that always seems to be my first thought after watching the films of James Wan. He’s so good at creating the mechanics of a scare, yet so bad at building characters that resemble actual human beings, I find myself admiring his ability at the same time that I resent his apparent lack of interest in what the actors are doing.
I was going to do a plot setup for Dead Silence, but then decided there was no point because Wan and his screenwriting partner Leigh Whannell don’t seem to have any interest in their story or characters. What they are interested in is setting up the audience for jump scares involving ventriloquist dummies, ghosts, and the grisly corpses of murder victims. But it’s hard to fault their efforts to scare the audience because they are very, very good at creating the type of elaborate horror set pieces that only a few filmmakers are capable of pulling off.
Much like Wan’s The Conjuring, Dead Silence is a machine constructed to set up the audience for the scare and then actually deliver on that setup. Both films are like going to a haunted house on Halloween. You know you’re going to jump, you see the setup, you understand you’re being manipulated, but then you experience that startling moment that makes you jump. Sure you were scared for a brief second, you had a reflexive reaction to being startled, but the moment quickly passes and you wait for the next scare. That kind of experience can be fun, but there’s something fundamentally cheap about it when applied to a film devoid of characters worth caring about.
That, to me, is where Dead Silence falls apart. Technically, Wan and Whannell provide sympathetic characters and a central mystery on which to hang their funhouse contraption. But they rush the film through any scenes (aside from an effective flashback sequence) that don’t find characters tiptoeing into danger and then running from or screaming at said danger. The result is watching a bunch of actors interacting in ways that people don’t actually behave while wondering when the next shot of a creepy dummy shifting its eyes is coming.
It’s only because Wan is obviously such a skilled craftsman at setting up and delivering on the haunted house elements of his films that I’m as disappointed as I am with Dead Silence. The atmosphere is suitably Gothic, the jumps expertly constructed, and the premise has potential, but it’s all in service of a film that is all surface and shows no interest in trying to get under the skin.
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