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If you think about it, there’s something inherently creepy about dolls: their tiny little hands…those dead, glassy eyes that seem to follow you around the room…the way they always seem to have just stopped moving, right before you happen to look at them…small wonder, then, that dolls, like clowns, make such great subjects for horror films. If dolls are inherently unsettling, however, ventriloquist dummies are just shy of existentially terrifying: after all, these little fellas are just like regular dolls but they can talk. You can keep your masked slashers, fanged vampires and walking dead: when hard-pressed, I’m not sure that I can think of anything more horrifying than animate, ventriloquist dolls with evil intentions.

Although it will probably never be regarded as the “definitive” ventriloquist film – that honor presumably goes to Richard Attenborough’s ultra-creepy Magic (1978) – James Wan’s Dead Silence (2007) is probably the best modern example of this (decidedly) niche sub-genre of horror film. While the film is far from perfect, there’s enough good material here to warrant attention from horror fans, although the film definitely falls short of living up to its full potential. More importantly, Dead Silence serves as a bridge between Wan’s torture-porn beginnings as the creator of the Saw franchise and his latter-day films, the widely acclaimed, mainstream-baiting Insidious and Conjuring franchises.

After kicking off with a rather bombastic, industrial-tinged credit sequence (frequent Nine Inch Nails collaborator Charlie Clouser provided the film’s score), Dead Silence introduces us to our protagonist, Jamie (Ryan Kwanten). Jamie has been sent a strange ventriloquist doll, by the name of Billy, from some anonymous benefactor. Since this is a horror film, the doll introduces itself by slaughtering Jamie’s loving wife, Lisa (Laura Regan), and setting Jamie up to take the fall for the murder. In order to clear his name, Jamie hightails it back to his boyhood home of Ravens Fair, which also happens to be the return address for the evil doll. Once there, Jamie falls into the local legend of Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts), a supposedly murdered ventriloquist who was involved in some pretty dark doings when she was alive. Billy was one of Mary’s star puppets when she was alive but was supposedly buried alongside her when she died.

As Jamie continues his investigation, he finds himself back with his estranged father, Edward (Bob Gunton), who happens to be wheelchair-bound after a recent stroke. While father and son might not have much use for each other now, the secret to Jamie’s current situation, as well as the future of Ravens Fair, lies in Edward’s past. In a town where the living keep the secrets of the dead, Jamie will discover that not everything dead stays buried…and revenge is always a dish best served cold.

In many ways, Dead Silence seems like a test-run for Wan’s big hit, Insidious (2010). Both films share a similar aesthetic, feature imaginative setpieces (although Dead Silence is a much gorier film than Insidious), an emphasis on mood over action (although Dead Silence features about 200% more obvious jump scares than Insidious and The Conjuring (2013), combined) and feature plots that focus on “the sins of the fathers,” as it were. For all of this, however, Dead Silence ends up being a much sloppier film than Insidious: the subtler, low-key moments end up jammed next to some thoroughly stupid jump scares that tend to devalue the whole affair.

Truthfully, the whole film feels just a little sloppy, as if Wan couldn’t be quite bothered to dot the Is and cross the Ts. For every scene like the excruciatingly measured bit where Billy turns, inch by inch, to stare at Jaime, we get obvious schlock like the clichéd ‘scary-face” effect that gets superimposed over Mary’s dolls, ruining an otherwise ultra-creepy look (note to Wan: dolls that turn and look at you are terrifying…dolls with crappy CGI faces are the exact opposite). Dead Silence ends up looking very expensive and polished but often plays like a lowest-common-denominator B-movie. In particular, the film starts to get supremely silly once we get to the obligatory “humans into dolls” bit, an idea that would seem to be ripe with nightmare intent but just comes across as goopy and kind of nonsensical, in practice. Add to this a truly over-the-top score that manages to not only telegraph but belabor some of the film’s scarier elements and it’s easy to see how the film falls short of its own goals.

Which, ultimately, is a bit of shame, since there’s so much truly great stuff here. Ryan Kwanten, from TV’s True Blood, is a thoroughly likable hero, even if he can occasionally blend into the woodwork and Judith Roberts is perfect as the venomous, demonic Mary Shaw: it’s easy to see where the “old lady demon” in Insidious got its genesis, although I dare say that Mary’s backstory and puppet army make her the infinitely more frightening of the two. Donnie Wahlberg’s Det. Lipton is a complete asshole but he’s an entertaining one, proving that it would be entirely possible to get one complete actor out of the Wahlbergs if one could combine Donnie’s over-the-top mannerisms with Markie’s studiously underplayed style.

While the effects are, for the most part, quite good (there also seems to be several practical effects bits, which are always appreciated), Dead Silence’s sound design ends up being the hidden MVP, helping to accentuate the atmosphere of key scenes while contributing to the finale’s nightmarish sense of unreality. It’s the kind of subtle sound design that would be used to much greater effect in Insidious but it’s kind of cool to watch Wan take baby steps with the notion here. For the most part, Dead Silence looks and sounds great, even if the film can, at times, have all of the weight and importance of a Twinkie.

Despite not quite living up to its full potential, Dead Silence is a lot of fun: Mary’s backstory is pretty great, the film moves quickly and the ending, while a little obvious, is still nicely realized and manages to pack a bit of a gut-punch. It’s just too bad that the film often comes across as lazy, more content with throwing out a tedious jump scare than maintaining a consistently oppressive atmosphere. If anything, think of Dead Silence as a test-run for Insidious: while Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell might have lit the fuse with their first attempt at a more mature, mainstream horror film after Saw (2004), they would need to wait a few years to truly appreciate the explosion that was Insidious.