It's high time someone made another horror film about ventriloquists' dummies, which are second only to clowns in their ability to scare children while ostensibly entertaining them. That mirthless face, those rag-doll limbs, that thousand-yard, dead-eyed stare: The whole package is creepy enough well before somebody pretends the dummy can actually speak, too. The effective opening sequence of Dead Silence, the latest from the writer-director team behind Saw, exploits these fears by inducing the sort of dreamlike state that would animate a dummy in the mind's eye. Though the scares dissipate around the sixth or seventh time this happens, the filmmakers deserve some credit for playing it straight and dodging any Bride Of Chucky irony, in spite of the distinct possibility that a killer doll might not send viewers diving under their chairs. Yet even without the mechanized death that made the Saw movies such a sensation, it doesn't take long to realize that director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell are merely trying to replace one twisty, gimmicky franchise with another.
Again coaxing the worst imaginable performances out of his actors (see also: Cary Elwes and Danny Glover in Saw), Wan casts charisma-free unknown Ryan Kwanten as a young married man whose small-town past catches up to him. When a ventriloquist's dummy arrives on his doorstep without a note, Kwanten wonders where it came from, but his suspicions don't keep him from stepping out for Chinese carryout, leaving his wife to be brutally murdered. With detective Donnie Wahlberg in tow, Kwanten pursues the doll's origins by traveling back to his hometown of Ravens Fair, now a boarded-up ghost town that claims only a few residents, including Kwanten's estranged father Bob Gunton and his lovely new wife Amber Valletta. Legend has it that the doll belonged to a long-dead ventriloquist intent on haunting the townspeople from beyond the grave.
The opening credits sequence, starting with the ancient Universal logo, seem to promise a return to the studio's B-horror roots, but it's only window dressing to hide the film's conspicuously modern use of cheap shocks and digital effects. It also doesn't make much sense: If Kwanten believes that the dummy killed his wife, why does he cart it around like a sidekick? And how many times can the poor guy be fooled by the ol' ventriloquist-throwing-his-or-her-voice routine? After a while, he looks a bit like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. Much like Saw, Dead Silence ultimately hinges on a Big Twist, except in the former film, the twist comes out of nowhere, while here, it's more or less obvious from the second reel. Does that count as progress?