This Friday, James Wan returns to scare the crap out of people yet again - The Conjuring even got ME jolted a few times, and I'm notoriously hard to scare (and not big on haunted house movies in general), so it will probably play like gangbusters both to the adults and the kids who had to sneak in due to the R rating (simply for being scary! There's no violence, gore, or even profanity of note in the film!). The ads play up the fact that it's "from the director of Saw and Insidious," which is to be expected since they were his biggest hits, but it actually shares some DNA with his underrated sophomore effort: Dead Silence.
I've been meaning to revisit the film for a while now, and since I wrote my Conjuring review last month after its LAFF premiere, I figured now would be a good time to double up, reminding folks of its impending release (I believe Devin will have a review as well) while gushing over one of his earlier efforts. The Conjuring is going to be a big hit, I suspect, and with that comes new fans who might be eager to check out his previous work that they may have missed along the way. To do so, I have once again recruited Sam Zimmerman, contributing editor for Fangoria and all around swell chap, to help spread the gospel of a movie not enough people have even SEEN, let alone appreciate. So let's get to it!
BC: Sam, between Book of Shadows, My Soul to Take*, and now Dead Silence, I think we're well on our way to writing a book about the most underrated/under-appreciated little horror gems from the past 20 years. It will sell two copies (to our moms), but dammit, if some kid thumbs through it at the store and feels compelled to check one of them out afterward, it'll all be worth it.
The weirdest thing about Dead Silence, and its unfortunate failure at the box office, is that it probably would have been a better film if it was rated PG-13, which is truly an anomaly in horror. In fact, James Wan and Leigh Whannell set out to make a PG-13 film, but the success of Saw and its sequels (despite being shot around the same time as Saw II, Saw IV was already in production by the time this was released) had Universal fighting to make it an R rating, not to mention playing up the connection in the ads. As a result, folks were expecting more of that series' trademark gore and violence, not an atmospheric, slow-burn ghost story about killer puppets, and thus walked away disappointed.
It's their loss, however - the movie is a wonderful little homage to 60s Italian and British horror, and should satisfy fans of that era, ESPECIALLY at the time it was released, when everything else was, well, like Saw. Nowadays we see movies like this coming a little more often - The Woman In Black and Wan's own subsequent hit Insidious fit the "old school" bill as well. But in 2007, everything was torture and gore (or a remake), making this a breath of fresh air that not enough people got to appreciate.
Do you agree that the R/ad campaign was mostly responsible for its cold reception, or was there a conjuring of something more insidious that led to its death sentence?
BC: It's definitely got chilling moments throughout - any scene where the Billy puppet is around is automatically an uneasy one. It's funny how the opening scene of The Conjuring is going to scare the shit out of millions this weekend when folks like us will recognize part of it as a pseudo-remake of Dead Silence's own introduction - there's nothing not scary about a creepy ass doll being left (OR DID IT WALK?) at your doorstep in the middle of the night.
But it's actually a pretty simple story, and part of what I liked about it (more so at the time; it won't register as much now) is that the smaller plot and reduced cast (there's only like seven real characters in the movie) was a huge difference from Saw and its first two sequels (the only two Wan and Whannell had any involvement with), which had such a sprawling cast and complicated plot - which I love, don't get me wrong - that it didn't leave much time for any full blown scare scenes. It's interesting that the most extensive new horror franchise birthed since the 80s heyday actually wasn't scary at all beyond a few good jumps in the first film - Wan was changing direction by actually doing a scary film!
You mentioned the British/Italian influence - revisiting the film for the first time in years had me appreciating that aspect even more. This was actually one of the first movies I reviewed for HMAD, before seeing a few of the older films I had missed along the way and thus not spotting their influence on this one. There's a lengthy underwater sequence during the climax that pays homage to Argento's Inferno, and the overworked fog machines are straight out of Hammer movies, of which I had only seen a couple in March of 2007. Even the plot itself is not unlike something out of that era - a guy going back to his creepy childhood home, digging up graves, solving an old mystery... you can practically HEAR Bob Gunton's lines being delivered by Christopher Lee (with Peter Cushing as Henry the groundskeeper, played here by Michael Fairman).
Did you spot any other references or homages, either specific to a movie or just in general?
BC: Wow, never really thought of that, but you're 100% right. Indeed, if I had any one complaint about Dead Silence, it would be that I wanted more of the Walkers - Henry's final scene is the most upsetting in the movie, to me, and I can't help but think it'd be an all time gutpunch if we got to know them a bit more.
That said, I can't complain about the time we spend with Ryan Kwanten (Jamie) and Donnie Wahlberg (Detective Lipton), as it tends to be amusing and makes their eventual teamup ("if you say I told you so...") all the more satisfying. Wahlberg rarely gets to play a character that's basically comic relief (no Dreamcatcher jokes, please), with his razor addiction, incredulous reactions to Jamie's tales of deadly puppets, and low gas supply. Usually I think he is actively trying to avoid any comparison to his brother, but you can almost see him channeling Mark with a few of his deliveries ("often seen with a hand up its ass" in particular sticks out).
And if you like his character, it's pretty much the only reason to check out the "unrated" cut, as it provides him with a better introduction in a brief scene before he interrogates Jamie. Otherwise, stick to the theatrical version, as the other extensions largely amount to CGI tongues coming out of Mary Shaw, an idiotic device that looks terrible, not to mention completely throws off the film's 60s horror aesthetic.
Finally I want to talk about the twist for a bit, as on repeat watches I almost feel stupid for not catching at least the first part of it on my initial viewing. It's remarkable how they practically spell it out for you (notice Amber Valletta's position during the two big scenes with Bob Gunton) and yet it still caught me off guard. Sure, the rapid-fire Saw-style flashback montage feels a bit forced (with Charlie Clouser's music - otherwise incredible - sounding very close to "Hello Zepp" to boot), but it reiterates that they weren't cheating even in the slightest - a terrific bit of misdirection that befits the storyline.
SAM: I still remain baffled by the razor. It's so funny, yet who's stubble is like that? Is he just constantly paranoid he missed a spot?
With the twist, I think "misdirection" nails it. You don't feel cheated or that someone pulled a fast one, just that it's well constructed, and both a fun and really nasty reveal at that. The further exploration of the twist however is really the film's big misstep. You mention the Saw-style flashback. I think it kills the vibe even more than the CGI tongue (which while goofy, I don't hate). Thankfully, the portraits and closing of the book kind of brings it back in at the end.
BC: Yeah, it's all wrapped up nicely, and no sequel (though a prequel about one of the other dolls back in the day, helping to wipe out Raven's Fair, could be a lot of fun).
Sam I want to thank you for joining me once again to honor one of these little gems that either inspire unnecessary rage or simply didn't catch on as well as they should. It's sad that it won't be the last - in a perfect world, everyone would be as wise to these movies as we are!
SAM: Thanks again for having me. While certainly not as reviled as Book Of Shadows, Dead Silence is a little underseen. It's such a fun "scary story" of a movie and the beginning of a path that James Wan is just mastering.
The Conjuring hits theaters this Friday. Dead Silence is readily available on disc and demand services (no Netflix Instant as of this writing, sadly). Still no Blu-ray in Region 1, but you CAN come over to my place and watch it on HD-DVD (!). It's the look and sound of perfect!
*Sam didn't join me for the My Soul To Take article itself, but he is a fellow defender who I consulted with quite a bit during its writing.