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Dead Silence

When Dead Silence saw its theatrical release, critics trashed it (not that the studio screened it for critics). But they really missed the point. This movie has little aspiration beyond giving its audience a goofy thrill, with a few cheap scares thrown around. After all, it's not even a movie about a murderous ventriloquist dummy; it's about a ventriloquist's ghost who becomes a dummy herself to enact revenge. Though the filmmakers don't cite it as an influence, it's right out of Tales From The Crypt.

So it lacks the Cryptkeeper. It still has that sense of fun, and a willingness to nod at the audience that, yes, everybody knows this is kind of dumb. Get a group of people around to watch it, though, and it could be a heck of a lot of fun.

As is required for a movie so baroque, even the names keep you from taking things too seriously. Our hero, and the target of Mary Shaw's curse, is not just from an ashen family, ruined by a long-ago sin. They literally are the Ashens, one of the most powerful families in the once glorious village of Ravens Fair.

It was glorious until one fateful night at the opening of the Guignol Theater…a grand theater if you will. Like something out of the original Phantom of the Opera, it's a towering building in the middle of a lake, large enough for the entire town to be its audience in one sitting. Yes, it's all defying logic, but that's part of the fun.

What happened at that spooky theater is almost a let-down after the doings that have been going on throughout the movie. Director James Wan knows full well that no matter how frightening he makes Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts), she's never going to be as out and out bats**t creepy as her dummy, Billy, who appears at the beginning of the movie in a velvet-lined coffin.

Wan uses Billy really well, even though you might want to scream at other characters for just leaving him lying around. Okay, don't scream, because that only means that Mary Shaw will rip out your tongue, steal your voice and leave your corpse looking like a vampiric Jerry Mahoney.

Give a little credit, too, to a film that does allow its lead (Ryan Kwanten) to act as if he's seen a horror movie or two before. (That's a peeve of mine.) When you have a haunted dummy resurrected from the grave, the smart thing to do is to put it back, which Jamie Ashen does. It's not his fault that everyone around him, including the police detective (Donnie Wahlberg) who thinks he killed his wife, is, well, a dummy. Plus that would solve things about a half hour in, and we can't have that.

The production aims for fun over gore, though there's enough of that. Wan suggests as much as he shows, though occasionally he gets lost in camera trickery. One shot juxtaposing an image in the mind's eye juxtaposes another image in the mind's eye, which makes it really hard to take seriously.

This week's DVD release includes a couple of cool extras. In a real rarity, the alternate opening and ending would probably have made the movie stronger in a cool way, providing a better sense of coming full circle and a more Crypt-like stinger. Alas, alas. The requisite "making of" featurettes are there, too, but they feel a little slanted and make everything seem like higher art than it is. Movie monster Judith Roberts may have a long history as a stage actress, but on film she spent the seventies making exploitation films like The Swinging Barmaids. Let the fun extend to the backstage stuff, people.

Dead Silence isn't the scariest dummy movie ever made. That honor probably still goes to Magic, though Michael Redgrave gave an incredibly eerie performance in Dead of Night that still holds up today. But as my high school buddy Jeff Ringgold can attest when I'd hide my Charlie McCarthy in the backseat of his VW Bug, a ventriloquist dummy does not have to work too hard to scare the wits out of you.

So yeah, that's a plug. Dead Silence deserves to get you and your friends screaming with laughter.

Buy Dead Silence (Unrated Widescreen Edition) on Amazon.com

Derek McCaw

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