Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
As two gay men, we have opted to use the moniker “Horror Queers” for this series of articles. It is a word that has a complicated history due to its derogatory use by bullies and hateful people, but has increasingly been adopted as a term of empowerment and a unifying term that recognizes the many complex identities that make up the LGBTIQQ community. Queer has become commonplace in academia, politics and pop culture over the past three decades. We understand and recognize that the term is still very hurtful for some people, but we believe that the more people that proudly reclaim it, the more the wounds and stigma surrounding the term are reduced. Using the word “queer” is intensely personal, but it is a decision that we are committed to. Please don’t be an asshole when using it and we’ll get along fine.
***SPOILERS for Dead Silence to follow.***
Synopsis for Dead Silence: Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten), a young widower, returns to his hometown to search for answers to his wife’s murder, which may be linked to the ghost of murdered ventriloquist Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts).
Queer Aspect: Dolls…and Ryan Kwanten’s residual Jason Stackhouse sex appeal?
Joe, I think readers are going to be a bit perplexed by our (re: your) decision to cover James Wan’s second feature film, Dead Silence, for this article (congrats to James Wan for being the first director we’ve covered twice for this series, though!). We are usually able to connect our off-cycle films with some element of queerness (see: Rebecca Gayheart’s performance in Urban Legend), but Dead Silence doesn’t have any noticeably queer elements. Ok admittedly, it does have some of the camp elements we seek out in the films we cover (this thing just gets sillier and sillier as it goes along, doesn’t it?).
What is most fascinating about Dead Silence is not the film itself, but rather its placement in Wan’s career. It’s kind of miraculous that he became the directorial juggernaut that he is today, especially considering the terrible year he had in 2007. After bursting onto the horror scene in 2004 with Saw, expectations were high for his sophomore feature. Released two and a half years after Saw, Dead Silence was a critical and commercial failure. It earned a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes (with an average rating of 3.9/10) and only grossed $16.8 million here in the States. The film fared poorly overseas as well, grossing a mere $5.4 million, making for a worldwide gross of $22.2 million. Yikes.
Made for a sizable budget of $20 million (most of which had to have gone to the production design, which is spectacular), the film was a disappointment to say the least. This is somewhat surprising, considering the trailer had everybody talking back then (at least from what I can remember….I was 18 at the time). Maybe its similarities to the trailer for Darkness Falls turned some people off? Both featured a creepy nursery rhyme and an old lady who became a vengeful ghost after being murdered by townsfolk. I don’t know. I’m just spitballing, here. Screenwriter Leigh Whannell has made it clear that he felt Universal Pictures treated the film like “toxic waste,” so that probably had something to do with it.
All the more shocking is that Dead Silence wasn’t James Wan’s only flop in 2007. He also released the Kevin Bacon-starring Death Sentence, which grossed a paltry $16.9 million worldwide against a $20 million budget, just six months after Dead Silence. Critics were also unkind to that film, which also had s 20% on Rotten Tomatoes (albeit with a slightly higher average score of 4.1/10). How was he not blacklisted from Hollywood after 2007? I’m not saying he should have been (he’s a wonderful director), but it seems like Hollywood’s cynicism would have ostracized him after two failures in the same year. Thank God for Jason Blum, who allowed him to make Insidious four years later (“allowed” may be the wrong choice of word, but you get what I mean). It’s an understatement to say that his career has been flourishing both creatively and financially since then.
Upon rewatching Dead Silence, it’s shocking at how well-made the film is. As mentioned above, the production design is fantastic. The town of Raven’s Fair has a very Silent Hill-y vibe mixed with a little Springwood from the Freddy’s Dead era. James Wan evokes a particular style throughout the film, as well. From the old-timey/modified Universal logo that starts the film (I’m a sucker for this gag, be it in Drag Me to Hell, Ouija: Origin of Evil or Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World) through the rapid Saw-like editing during the twist reveal (shockingly, Saw franchise editor-turned-director Kevin Greutert did not edit Dead Silence), this is undoubtedly a James Wan film. And how can you not enjoy Saw-composer Charlie Clouser’s score?
The film is also lit with a lot of blues, so much so that at one point the characters on screen look like Violet from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (see below). Nevertheless, you have to appreciate Dead Silence’s style; it’s chock-full of it. Well, that and jump scares. Lots of jump scares (I’m not opposed to jump scares at all, but Dead Silence is filled to the brim with cheap ones).
This was also my first time watching the unrated version of the film, which has some additions that actually should have made it into the final cut! The most egregious cut comes in the form of Shaw’s tongue, which is a long, Venom-like tongue made up of the tongues of all of her victims. Why was this removed?! It’s one of the more inspired ideas in Whannell’s screenplay (the CGI is less than stellar, so perhaps that was a studio decision?)
The alternate ending of the film gives more backstory to Amber Valletta’s Ella, explaining how she came to be possessed by Shaw. The theatrical/unrated cut ends rather abruptly, making it unclear as to whether Ella is possessed by Shaw or simply one of her acolytes. The only explanation given is a drawing of her face in a book noting that she is the “perfect doll.” In the alternate ending, Ella was human and married to Edward, but he was abusive and pushed her down the stairs one day, killing their unborn child. She then went to the cemetery and dug up Billy the puppet and was possessed by Mary Shaw. Okay, so that still doesn’t make a lot of sense (what was she planning on doing with that puppet?), but it at least adds some sort of explanation to an admittedly clever twist. I don’t need everything spelled out for me, but the ending that wound up in the final cut feels like a victim of poor editing.
Joe, I haven’t really begun to analyze the film yet, opting instead to dive into fun bits of trivia. Apologies for that, but what did you make of Dead Silence on a rewatch? Did you detect any queer themes? Was it fairly maligned back in 2007? Or have the 11 years since its release been kind to it? Does watching Ryan Kwanten walk around doing nothing make for an entertaining viewing experience? And I mentioned, but didn’t really dig into, Leigh Whannell’s thoughts on the film, which were revealed on his personal blog back in 2011 (seek it out because it’s pretty fascinating). Over to you, Joe!
Alright, so this is very much the definition of an “off-cycle” pick to me: it has a touch of camp (ventriloquism as a major plot point), a bizarre premise (so.many.dolls) and a hot Final Boy in Kwanten’s Jamie.
Or at least that’s what I thought when I added it to the brainstorming list way back in the day. In my memory, this film was the definition of a guilty-pleasure: an unfairly maligned supernatural film directed with flair that slipped through the cracks back in the day.
Unfortunately that’s not the film that I watched in anticipation of this column. Dead Silence has a lot of good qualities (the production design, the menagerie of creepy dolls, great makeup effects when folks lose their tongues/jaws), but overall this film has a huge debilitating weakness: it is DULL AS F*CK. Holy snoozefest, Trace; I really struggled to stay invested in this, especially any time that Donnie Wahlberg’s horribly miscast Detective Lipton appears on screen (shaving, always shaving. WHY?!) I’m flabbergasted that Wan thinks his performance is actually “funny”.
What’s really intriguing to me is how, at this very moment, the late 90s teen horror cycle is having a cultural renaissance: we just celebrated the 20th anniversary of fare like Urban Legend and The Faculty, which were critical flops (albeit decent moneymakers) back in their initial release. I’ll be keen to see if in five to eight years mid-2000s horror films like Darkness Falls and Dead Silence get special edition Scream Factory releases and think-pieces celebrating them.
I don’t think the horror community is going to be as kind.
But turning back specifically to Wan’s sophomore effort: I think you rightfully touched on the most interesting aspects of Dead Silence, which is how it reflects the lessons that Wan and Leigh Whannell learned making Saw, while simultaneously anticipating the Insidious and The Conjuring universes to come. The DNA of those (much improved) supernatural films are clearly established here, particularly in the mythology of Mary Shaw, her movements and her costuming/make-up. I mentioned on Twitter while I was watching that it would take no effort to incorporate this character into one of Wan’s two universes.
To be honest, I would be 100% in favour of such a development because I think there’s a ton of promise in this premise (say that five times fast). As an antagonist, Shaw is creepy, memorable and she gives great head, especially when those heads are attached to 100 ventriloquist dummies contained in glass cases behind a theatrical red curtain. Dolls are inherently creepy and this cacophony of them, particularly the section in the Theatre Guignol, is easily the film’s most successful set piece (it doesn’t hurt that this is where Wahlberg is brutally murdered).
Circling back to your questions, I did want to address the queer aspect in more detail. While there’s nothing inherently queer about Jamie (aside from a unisex name), the Final Boy element helps make the film a bit of an oddity. Dead Silence isn’t quite a slasher, but the way that Mary Shaw targets her victims hews closely to slasher villain formula, and Jamie’s entire character arc plays out like a slasher heroine to me. He must return to his hometown, he conducts research, he alone has the ingenuity to discover the villain’s plan, etc. Obviously his dead wife (another standout sequence) impacts his romantic prospects, but that doesn’t discount the fact that Jamie is startlingly asexual throughout the film (another Film Girl trait).
I dunno. Maybe I’m way off base, but having a male protagonist in a film like this strikes me as a touch queer. Sidebar: I’ll never forgive Wan for the lack of shirtless scenes in this film (does Jamie never shower?).
Back to you Trace: do you see queer themes in Jamie or the dolls? Or perhaps in the campy twist at the film’s end? Are you open to see more Mary Shaw somewhere down the line? And how long would your liver last if you did played the Dead Silence drinking game where you take a shot every time her name is mentioned?
Wait a minute, Joe. You don’t find Wahlberg’s performance humorous? It is arguably the campiest thing about this movie. He’s overacting so much and every time he busted out that damn electric razor, I couldn’t help but guffaw (guffaw, Joe). His performance is almost as bad as Chad Donella’s in Saw 3D (and if you don’t remember who that is, give it a rewatch. It’s one of the most egregious examples of bad acting I can think of off the top of my head.).
As for the film’s queerness: I don’t really see it. It’s fitting that we are discussing Dead Silence right after A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 since both of them have male protagonists, but the Final Girl trope fits with NOES2 because it is a slasher film. Dead Silence isn’t a slasher film, so the Final Girl doesn’t apply here (yes, I’m aware the Final Girl trope can apply to other sub-genres of horror, but in my opinion the argument doesn’t hold much weight here). Also, Jamie is the only boy, let alone the Final One. He’s not exactly surrounded by a jury of his peers, you know? In the words of some of our detractors in the comments section: I think you may be reaching a bit with this one.
I somewhat (but not completely) disagree with you about the film being dull. On one level, I was utterly fascinated by what was transpiring on screen because it was so silly (and pretty), but you are correct that the narrative isn’t the most compelling aspect of the film. I wasn’t kidding when I asked if watching Ryan Kwanten walk around doing nothing made for an entertaining viewing experience. It doesn’t.
That brings me to the film’s main problem: there aren’t enough characters. Other than Jamie, you’ve got Edward and Ella, who exist solely for the third act twist (and disappear for most of the second act). Then you’ve got the useless Detective Dodo. And finally you’ve got the mortician and his wife, the former of whom solely exists to provide clunky exposition (with one of the longest flashbacks ever) and to add to the film’s surprisingly low body count.
It doesn’t help that Jamie is (understandably) a sad sap for the majority of the film. The character’s mopey storyline prevents Kwanten from displaying his natural charisma and thus destroys any interest we may have in watching him. We also don’t get any shots of his butt, which is just ridiculous (I suppose that if we’re following your Final Boy theory then it makes sense that Jamie would be fully clothed for the entirety of the film. He has to remain pure!) Admittedly, the film would be much more interesting if he was walking around doing nothing butt naked, but I guess there’s not much justification for that.
Because of the lack of characters, Raven’s Fair is missing the personality that usually comes from a small town’s residents. Where is everybody in this town? Raven’s Fair has a Silent Hill quality to it, but whereas it made sense for Silent Hill to be somewhat abandoned since it is literally a ghost town, Raven’s Fair doesn’t have that “luxury.” You would think that there would be more people living in the town or, since all of its residents had either fled or been killed by Mary Shaw, that the town would have more of a notorious reputation.
While we’re discussing lapses in logic, why is it taking Mary Shaw so long (like, decades) to kill all of these people? Doesn’t she just need to apparate to her victim’s location and make him/her scream? Can she only kill them if they’re in Raven’s Fair (clearly not since she tracked down Jamie’s wife)? What is she doing between murders? Does she have hobbies during her down time? I have to know.
Despite all of those flaws, I still like Dead Silence. I like it more than its writer and director do. That Theatre Guignol set piece is, as you said, the film’s strongest sequence. I am also partial to the opening sequence, though I hope Laura Regan got a better agent (They and Hollow Man 2: Even Hollower were some of her other screen credits from that time), but I digress. There are some fantastically creepy moments in the film, and Wan seems to be having fun (even if he wasn’t) with the multitude of doll set pieces. Mary Shaw being a primer for Insidious’s Bride in Black makes her even more of an interesting villain (especially if she’s allowed to keep her CGI tongue). Lastly, that twist with Edward is just great. If nothing else, you cannot deny that the film has some striking visuals, and Edward’s hollowed-out back is one of them.
Joe, how can you hate a movie that has the balls to A) kill a pregnant woman in its opening scene and B) repeatedly show the decomposing corpse of a child? Little Michael’s marionette tableau is creepy as all get out. Is Dead Silence low man on the totem pole for you when it comes to James Wan’s filmography? What would make the film less boring for you?
A) I am always down for child murder, so I applaud the death of not one, but two of them in this film.
B) I don’t hate the film! I just think that it’s reflective of a certain kind of horror film from the 2000s: movies that have a solid hook courtesy of their high concept idea that doesn’t come together to form a compelling finished film.
It’s clear that Whannell and Wan had a great idea when they began collaborating on this film, but the resulting film is all concept and great aesthetics with no real story or characterization. It’s not just that Mary Shaw’s plan doesn’t make any sense; it’s that it’s surprisingly basic (she’s got all of those powers, but she’s just floating around trying to make people scream? Bitch, aim higher!) Compared to their other output, it’s pretty clear to me that Dead Silence is the odd duck out in their filmography.
So what could have been done to make Dead Silence more enjoyable? Well I’m glad you asked (Sidebar: I love that we’re full-on jumping into speculative territory because the film doesn’t offer enough interesting details to fill out a column!)
1) Make Lisa Jamie’s sister instead of his wife: This way you not only get another red shirt in the form of her husband or boyfriend, and Jamie isn’t saddled with a sad sack storyline. Her death can still be used to prompt Jamie’s return home, however (obviously keep her pregnancy).
2) Get Jamie and Ella together: Hear me out because this may seem like an unusual idea, but whenever Jamie and Ella interact, there’s some weird sexual chemistry (particularly in their first encounter). Capitalize on this and get her more involved in his investigation! It’s established that Jamie’s relationship with his dad is shit, so if Jamie and Ella spend more time together (and obviously bump uglies – which gives us the butt shot that we deserve) it would dramatically increase the conflict between Jamie and his dad. Plus: it gives Ella more screen time, which would make the final twist even more gut-wrenching.
3) Establish an anniversary: It worked in The Fog and countless other horror films, so why not here? Rather than have Mary Shaw pointlessly wait for decades to exact her revenge, make it the anniversary of her death or some other date of significance (the town’s centennial?). This would clearly explain why she waited until now to massacre all of the descendants and it would also allow for a higher body count because she’d just be starting her killing spree.
4) Don’t send Jamie to the island twice: Why does Jamie go out, then come back to town and then sneak back out? It’s basically so that he and Detective Donnie can have more ridiculous encounters. Screw that! Once Jamie’s out there, just leave him out there until it’s time to bring him back to town for the twist.
5) Get rid of Detective Razor: Or at least make him useful. If the whole plot line about Jamie’s wife is eliminated, this character can become an ally instead of a waste of screen time. Leaning into your Silent Hill comparison, this character could be the equivalent of Laurie Holden’s Cybil: someone operating on the margins of the investigation (perhaps from a different, but complementary angle). I just really hate characters who are inserted into the plot solely to doubt or foil our protagonist’s progress, so Detective Dipshit really irks me.
6) Scrap the entire contemporary story: I get the impression that you didn’t like it quite as much as me, Trace, but outside of A) the opening scene, B) the twist and C) the Theatre Guignol, the best sequence of the film to me is the extended flashback of Mary Shaw’s origin. If you consider their quotes about the genesis of this film, it seems obvious that this portion is the film that Whannell and Wan really wanted to make, so why not just make Dead Silence an historical horror film? (I wonder if the studio rejected the concept out of fear that it wouldn’t sell… which would be ironic considering their lack of confidence in the finished product and doubly so since this is essentially what the writer/duo do with the Warrens in The Conjuring).
I don’t know that any of these suggestions would fix the film in its entirety, but it would be better than watching Kwanten wander around town for 90 minutes while Detective Wahlburger trails behind him, voraciously attacking his stubble.
Watching this a second time definitely confirmed to me that there’s promise in “doll horror”, but Dead Silence isn’t it. Perhaps we’ll discover a better candidate somewhere down the line; I’m not giving up until this column has covered a successful example, so brace yourself Thurman!
I have to chime in really quick before we end this piece, but if you’re wanting more doll horror then I can’t wait for you to finally watch Seed of Chucky. That film is…..well, it’s a film that exists.
Until next time, Horror Queers!