Dead Silence Revisited: A Retrospect on James Wan's Underrated Sophomore Release.

by Jordan Thoennes

Ah, to be back in 2007, which if you didn’t know was roughly 60 years ago. Believe it or not, back then James Wan was only known for directing Saw and co-writing Saw III. He hadn’t struck gold with the Insidious franchise just yet, nor was he anywhere near adapting Warren family stories that would lead to The Conjuring franchise. So what was James up to some six decades ago? He was directing Dead Silence, a supernatural film that was written by Wan’s partner in crime, Leigh Whannell.

The film follows Jamie Ashen, played by Ryan Kwanten, who finds a doll delivered to his apartment door. This creepy doll is from his hometown, which is united in their fear of dolls due to a ventriloquist named Mary Shaw, who had a vast collection of doll children. Ryan heads to his hometown after his wife is mysteriously murdered. Detective Donnie Wahlberg, er– I mean Jim Lipton, is not convinced and follows Jamie in an effort to close the case. The movie introduces us to one very creepy Mary Shaw, who is expertly played by Judith Roberts. Hijinks ensue as they do in horror films and the movie ends up being a proverbial wild doll chase.

I know what you’re thinking here, reader. “James Wan, the mastermind behind The Conjuring franchise, the Insidious franchise, and the Saw franchise? Leigh Whannell, the mastermind behind Upgrade and The Invisible Man? This movie must have destroyed the box office! Right? Right…?

(Insert Natalie Portman & Hayden Christensen meme)

Spoilers, but the film didn’t fare well. Whannell’s story about the terrifying Mary Shaw, who could and should have become a horror icon, only made 2.4 million above their budget. The film was pulled from theaters after just 16 days and plans for a sequel were basically thrown in the trash. Dead Silence 2: Dead in the Water? 2 Dead 2 Continue? Ventriloquist Boogaloo?

I digress.

Dead Silence was doomed before it was released in theaters. In his blog, Leigh Whannell explained the woes of bringing a script before the studio, and the studio having a script doctor rewrite it to their taste. Whannell details his experience in “Dud Silence: The Hellish Experience of Making a Bad Horror Film”, explaining the story and how it ended up with him preferring to write independently on his own time and keeping away from studios. Obviously, Leigh didn’t keep to his 2011 attitude, finding success with The Invisible Man and Upgrade, both through larger studios.

Even with all of the knowledge of how much Whannell hates this movie and how it turned out, I can’t help but still love it. I remember watching it in early horror loving years and being scared shitless by it. It caused many people to be unnerved by the sheer idea of silence and rightfully so! The movie received mostly negative reviews, but there is so much to praise about this film. The doll designs are terrifying. Mary Shaw, a woman with an relatable dedication to silence, was a horrifying villain that is still used in screengrabs and gifs to this day. Sure, the acting isn’t always the best, but that’s just a trope of horror. It’s certainly not a reason to avoid the film altogether.

Mary Shaw (Judith Anna Roberts) and her cheeky co-star.

Dead Silence to me would have been successful if it had been released 7 years later. If it had come out after the success of Insidious and The Conjuring, I’m sure that this movie would have earned its entire gross in the first weekend or two. It’s a fun, supernatural horror film that deserves its place among the other Wan/Whannell staples. I would love to see this film get its due and receive a re-release in theaters, because it truly is a tragedy that Mary Shaw was only on the big screen for 16 days.

Long live, Purely Kino. Long live, Mary Shaw.

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