Dolls are creepy. The horror genre is opportunistic. The rest is history. Of course, individual moviegoers’ mileage may vary on that first point. Our particular fears & points of reference for creepiness can range as widely & specifically as our sexual fetishes & turn-ons, but I can at least speak for myself in saying that Dolls. Are. The. Worst. Especially the older porcelain ones, with their aged lace & cold, distant expressions. I hate ’em. I hate ’em even more than most people hate clowns (not that I have a lot of love for those fuckers either). Still, I love watching dolls act creepy in trashy horror movies, because they’re so effortlessly effective. Like a true evil doll fetishist, I dedicated my annual Halloween-inspired horror binge last October to watching every evil doll movie I could find. It was a quest that lead me to watching Dolls, Devil Doll, Dolly Dearest, Demonic Toys, Trilogy of Terror, Pin, Magic, Annabelle, Asylum, Puppet Master 4: The Demon, and possibly a couple titles I’ve forgotten all in the span of a month. As I crowdsourced my selections, both online & with “real life” friends, it’s a wonder that no one suggested that I watch James Wan’s Dead Silence during this devil doll binge. Dead Silence is a fun little horror flick & a worthy addition to the evil doll genre, easily better than half the titles I just listed.
In just a few pictures, James Wan has racked up a nice little collection of genre film oddities to his name (films like Saw, The Conjuring, the Insidious franchise, etc.), but with the exception of his most recent/expensive production (Furious 7) I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed his work quite as much as I enjoyed Dead Silence. With the same love Furious 7 brought to the grotesquely excessive action film genre, Dead Silence displays a giddily thorough love for the world of trashy horror. It’s a pretty standard issue evil doll movie, for sure, one that narrows in only slightly on the insular world of evil ventriloquism. Still, within this frame Wan makes room for horror tropes of all kinds: foggy graveyards, evil toymakers, spooky mansions, flashing red & blue lights, oldtimey flashback footage, Argento’s slashing straight razor, Freddy Krueger’s from-beyond-the-grave-curse style of revenge, goofy/killer catchphrases (“Who’s the dummy?”), and the list goes on. This may be an evil doll movie, but really it’s all over the place. If there is any particular brand of horror that Wan zeroes in on here it’d be the work of shameless direct-to-video schlockmeister Charles Band, figurehead of Full Moon Features. I’m not just talking obvious points of reference like Band’s productions Puppet Master, Demonic Toys, and Dolls. The general vibe of Dead Silence is of a large budget version of Full Moon Entertainment’s entire aesthetic. I can tell you from experience that it takes a lot of love for trash cinema to find Full Moon’s overall vibe worthy of affection or even minimal effort, but after watching Dead Silence that’s something I assume James Wan has in spades.
The exact story Dead Silence tells doesn’t matter too, too much. There’s a local curse that haunts the residents of a small community thanks to the mysterious death of a wicked ventriloquist named Mary Shaw, who (true to the film’s vast collection of old hat horror tropes) has her own nursery rhyme that kids like to repeat ominously: “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw. She had no children, only dolls. And if you see her in your dreams, be sure you never, ever scream or she’ll rip your tongue out at the seam.” This ventriloquist ghost, of course, possesses the collection of dolls she left behind in her wake (wow, I kinda wish someone would reimagine this as a gory mockery of Jeff Dunham’s act), employing the not-so-inanimate bastards to avenge her death. Mary sometimes mimics/projects the voices of her would-be victims’ loved ones to lure them into vulnerable situation, which is a horror trope in its own way, but it’s at least one that fits in snuggly with the film’s ventriloquism theme. There’s exactly one invention (that at least I’ve never seen before) that Wan brings to the table here: in her quest to create “the perfect doll”, Mary Shaw turns her victims’ corpses into doll-like playthings, which leads to one hilariously over-the-top last minute reveal. Charles Band has tried to do a lot more with a lot less, I assure you, and the “perfect doll” angle & last second twist are plenty justification on their own for Dead Silence‘s place in the evil doll genre.
Otherwise, Dead Silence delivers exactly what you’d expect from a formulaic evil doll horror flick, but it at least does it from a place of love. That’s more than you can say for last year’s major studio return to the evil doll formula, the unbearably dull Rosemary’s Baby knockoff Anabelle (which, oddly enough, was a spin-off of Wan’s film The Conjuring). Dead Silence survives on its ambiance, cheap scares, and evil doll designs more than its barely competent acting & dialogue, but honestly that’s okay. Those kinds of shortcomings are just yet another old hat horror trope, fitting in perfectly with the movie’s trashy genre film charms. Besides, Dead Silence didn’t have to try too hard in the first place, since dolls are perfectly creepy enough on their own without help from basic things like a decent script or believable performances. Seriously, dolls are the worst. As long as a horror movie is willing to acknowledge that point, the rest is lagniappe.
SIDE NOTE: I appreciated Dead Silence‘s attention to sound, which is evident even in its title. There was plenty of ominous dead silence that allowed space for simple effects like the wooden creaking of the ventriloquist dolls’ eyes moving slightly to register as highly effective. Again, I feel like this is just more attention to detail from Wan, who’s obviously well aware that sound design is a large part of what makes horror tick.