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Silence’ frightens not with horror but horrible dialogue

Brian Doxtader | Tuesday, March 20, 2007

“Dead Silence” follows Jamie Ashen, who becomes a widower at the beginning of the film when his wife is mysteriously killed. Jamie is concerned about weird coincidences, which include the arrival of a puppet called Billy, the day of the murder and that Jamie’s wife seemed to talk to him moments before he discovered her body, despite the fact that her tongue was cut out.

Ignoring the assertion by Detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) that he’s the prime suspect, Ashen returns to his hometown to try to search for answers, where he meets a predictably strange cast of characters – his father Edward (Bob Gunten), who has driven away almost every member of his family; his new stepmother Ella (Amber Valletta), who seems to be the only one capable of putting up with Edward; and undertaker Henry Walker (Michael Fairman), who seems to know the town’s dark secret.

Jamie learns the legend of Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts), a ventriloquist who was suspected of murdering a child who insulted the old woman’s ventriloquism routine. The family of the child hunted down Shaw and killed her, cutting out her tongue in the process. Shaw was buried with her 101 puppets, but legend has it that her spirit returns to hunt down those who wronged her.

“Dead Silence” borrows heavily from a plethora of other horror films, including a credit sequence straight from “Se7en.” It also has an almost-willful affinity for clichés – characters enter dark crawlspaces, go into creepy bedrooms after hearing strange noises and follow disembodied voices. Just how hard does “Dead Silence” work to get its scares? When a talking clown doll tells Jamie to come closer so it can tell him a secret, Jamie enthusiastically complies.

Actually, the scariest thing about “Dead Silence” is the horrendous dialogue, which sounds like D. Edward Wood Jr. wrote it on a bender. Co-authored by Wan and “Saw” scribe James Whannell, “Dead Silence” only has a few scenes of true dialogue, which are so cliché-ridden that they are laughable rather than scary.

The performances don’t do much to help either. Few of the actors really distinguish themselves, especially Kwanten, who is largely forgettable in the lead role. In fact, the only one who has any charisma whatsoever is Donnie Wahlberg (the former New Kid on the Block, now better known as the less talented and less handsome older brother of Mark) as the (cliché) tough-as-nails Detective – but even his best lines sound ad-libbed. (When Jamie jumps into his car, Jim reluctantly gives chasing, quipping, “I don’t have a full tank of gas!”).

Predictably, “Dead Silence” has a plot twist (what horror film doesn’t these days?), though here it’s unexpected and genuinely chilling, which is a good thing. The whole enterprise is kind of creepy, but in a B-movie type of way. It’s hard to tell if the makers of “Dead Silence” took themselves seriously (though they did cast Donnie Wahlberg) because the film definitely has its scary moments and its atmospheric look is surprisingly effective. Wan is, in ways, a better filmmaker than might be expected, but the horrendous dialogue and plodding plot does him no service here.

“Dead Silence” isn’t likely to cause a big splash in the horror film world – in fact, it’s already seemed to come and go without much in the way of fanfare – and overall it’s a pretty uninspired film. But there are worse ways to kill a couple of hours. It doesn’t have an air of self-importance, and it trades gore for atmosphere, which is a welcome change of pace in modern horror. But it’s a shame that those ingredients don’t elevate “Dead Silence” from anything but a predictable B-film.