And hey, it wouldn't be Spooktacular Savings without some CHEAP THRILLS, right? Eh? (shit, there's still time for something cheaper, this was from a major studio, but enough digression on with the review)
For quite a while, I didn't like James Wan. Saw was a movie that was screened as kind of a special "secret" event right around the time the movie first came out when I was in college, and me and the fellow film freaks/friends at the Student Film Association all came to the same consensus that it was a pile of hot horror garbage, with camerawork that was murky, editing that tried to do that "super-FAST-OMG-IT'S-GOING-CRAY-CRAY" approach with the victims that was annoying, and worst of all a story that not only lacked logic but shoved it down your throat how clever they were with a particular twist.
While the Saws continued in the 00's, Wan didn't actually work that much as a director; he made two movies in 2007, this one and another 'dead' movie, a thriller called Death Sentence. It wasn't until The Conjuring in 2013 that he finally impressed me, and certainly in a way I didn't expect (I still remember seeing just one sequence at 2012 NY Comic Con at the panel for the movie, and being like 'Oh shit, this is a director I haven't seen before'). In the interest of full disclosure, I must note I still have yet to see 'Sentence' or the Insidious movies, and I hope those are good when I do see them.
So I came to this movie tonight and gave it a chance, unlike in 07 when I brushed it off and didn't look twice (and hey, ventriloquist dolls, c'mon man, isn't that old hat, I thought). It starts off promisingly enough, as Ryan Kwanten as Jamie (Jason on True Blood for those that may recall) is happily married and one night he and his wife get mailed a ventriloquist doll. Why did it get sent to them? Or, more to the point, why, when our main guy is out getting Chinese food for a night in, the doll seems to mercilessly slaughter the wife (and briefly, in confusing Jamie when he comes home, take on her voice)? Thus a mystery has to be solved - certainly Donnie Wahlberg's asshole detective won't do it (oh, I'll get to him soon, friendly readers) - and it takes him back to his hometown, where he has to see his estranged father (good old Warden Norton from Shawshank, Bob Gunton), and finds a conspiracy involving dolls. Lots and lots and LOTS of dolls.
Maybe I'm not an expert when it comes to doll movies - another missing entry for me when it comes to this particular brand of horror is Stuart Gordon's Dolls, and though I've seen clips I've yet to see the full segment from the British classic Dead of Night with the ventriloquist (though I hope to get to that in this 'Spooktacular' series, by the way). What I can give Wan credit for is that he isn't slouching too much when it comes to setting up atmosphere, and surely from places like the cemetery with the dolls (yes, they have their own caskets, which is where our Mr. Whoever-Doll was originally in), and when it comes to a major set piece in the third act, and takes place in lots of dark, black-and-grey tones and has lots of places where things can go 'Boo' in the night, it's fine. In a way this may be more like a semi-training ground for what Wan would later do in The Conjuring, but to more naturalistic effect (yes, naturalistic for a supernatural-ghost movie, yet it's true).
On the other hand, I'm not sure if a doll moving its eyes and turning its head slowly, after the 10th time, is any scarier than the first (and the first time it's only mildly 'oh shit', on the basest, boiler-plate level). Certainly Wan is trying to treat it seriously - it's not the Mr. Bubbles or whatever its name was in that episode of Seinfeld (you know the one, where Jerry's haunted at night while trying to sleep in Kramer's bed). But where the film really falters is the script, and in a lot of key areas.
Leigh Whannel's screenplay has lots of flat characters and dialog, and the one time it tries to make for something 'humorous', we get Wahlberg's detective as a guy who has an actual *character tic*. By this I mean he carries around an electric shaver and shaves just a little part of his neck without touching his face. This gimmick is tired at the first time it's done when in the investigation room with the Jamie character (and by the way, isn't him being out getting FOOD his alibi, the food is there, other people saw him get it, why go right away to the creepy doll angle at all, but, ah, fuck it, that'd require some logic here, right). But his whole function is similar to the shitty cops in the Saw movies - run through procedure, act like a dunce, and keep the story moving as if we're not already aware THE DOLL IS EVIL RUN IT'LL KILL US ALL. But no, let's keep this guy as a thing for, like, comedy or something.
Then there are parts that are predictable, though not in a way that makes you angry, just more of a 'meh' feeling. There is a coroner character, for example, who has a lot of useful information for the protagonist - there's even an elaborate flashback, actually, probably, my favorite scene of the movie because we get to see the doll and its 'maker, the 'Mary Shaw' from the oft-repeated poem that kicks off the plot in a way, and how it interacts with a large audience. There was no way this character could possibly live past a certain 'reel', so to speak, and sure enough this character did not. Other times, and this may be more on Wan's end and yet I can't be sure due to the nature of the writing, that jump scares have to be used. It is a tussle of what-to-do I'm sure; it may be creepy for some in the audience to see all of those doll's heads turning at the same time (you'll know it when you see it, it's like a spook-house version of what I saw back in 'Spooktacular' #1 of Attack of the Puppet People). But for others, this will be simply another thing that is just kind of.... there.
Wan pulls some of his Saw tricks out here and there, and I can actually forgive that since most of his direction here is competent, and Kwanten does as good a job as he can with what he has (Wahlberg is kind of sleep-walking, honestly, but then what else can he do with that fucking razor, which ends up being like a weak is-it-a-gag-even near the end). Dead Silence has a decent premise, and it gets undone scene by scene by writing that isn't bad due to it trying something TOO hard and being a complete disaster (such as Saw), but through mediocrity and things we've seen before. Hell, I suddenly remember as I type this a creepy doll was the focus of a goddamn episode of ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK (it was even featured in the opening, if you recall). It was surely scarier back then!
And God help us all, there is, sadly, a twist. And a pretty shitty one; not Saw level, but it surely comes close, and undoes a lot of good will I had through the movie, or tried to keep up.