Dead Silence


She's bummed because she's out of both Clearasil and Coppertone.

She’s bummed because she’s out of both Clearasil and Coppertone.

(2007) Horror (Universal) Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valletta, Donnie Wahlberg, Bob Gunton, Michael Fairman, Joan Heney, Laura Regan, Dmitry Chepovetsky, Judith Roberts, Keir Gilchrist, Steven Taylor, David Talbot, Steve Adams, Shelley Peterson, Enn Reitel (voice), Fred Tatasciore (voice), Austin Majors (voice), Julian Richings. Directed by James Wan.

The thing with urban legends is that they tend to be more folklore than folk. Legends like Bloody Mary and Spring-Heeled Jack, both of whom are likely to have at least some basis in fact, have evolved into creatures who haunt our nightmares but can do little more than that.

Jamie Ashen (Kwanten) and his wife Lisa (Regan) are young and have their whole lives ahead of them. They don’t have much, but they do have a ventriloquist dummy that arrived mysteriously on their doorstep. So what does one do when one receives a ventriloquist dummy from an unknown source? If you’re Jamie Ashen, you go out for Chinese.

Naturally while he’s out picking up his Mu Shu Pork, his wife is being brutally murdered and yes, the dummy figures into it. Detective Lipton (Wahlberg), being no dummy himself, figures that the husband is suspect number one because he was the last person to see his wife alive, and this whole dummy story is completely preposterous, right? Not as preposterous as the cops letting him head back to his home town of Raven’s Falls to bury his wife, nor as much as later leaving the dummy at Jamie’s apartment despite it being an important bit of evidence. We’ll get to that later.

Jamie meets up with his Dad (Gunton) with whom his relationship has been strained to say the least but latest stepmom Ella (Valletta) seems to have mellowed him. Unfortunately, Dad’s new attitude doesn’t make much headway with his son, whose bridges have apparently been bombed and burned. However, Jamie meets up with the local undertaker (Fairman) and his addled sister (Heney) who inform him about the town’s dirty little secret; a ventriloquist named Mary Shaw (Roberts) once was accused of kidnapping and murdering a local child and was herself murdered by the irate townsfolk, who didn’t cotton much to that kind of thing. Mary was buried with her collection of more than 100 dummies, and has had her cadaver deformed to resemble a doll herself.

Of course, being murdered by irate townspeople will give a spirit one gnarly mad-on, so her spirit is rumored to have come back and picked off those responsible for her untimely demise one by one. The rumor goes that if her victim screams, Mary yanks out their tongue as well as a good deal of their soul/life force/whatever. It makes for an unpleasant nursery rhyme, but is the vengeful ghost of Mary Shaw real, and if she is, how do you fight something that has been dead for thirty years?

A fairly likable young cast performs as well as can be expected, with the character actors thrown in for good measure delivering. Kwanten is pleasant-looking enough, but struck me as more whiny than heroic. Valletta is awfully nice to look at but had sadly little to do. Gunton is one of my favorite character actors, but again is given a thankless role that gets very little screen time and makes little impact. Wahlberg is solid playing a role he has already done in the Saw movies, which Wan and writer Leigh Whannell created. He does it well enough, I suppose.

Director Wan works the tension up nicely although the pace drags occasionally. There aren’t a lot of special effects to deal with other than the articulated dolls but the dolls are first-rate when they do appear. The cinematography was adequately dark and murky to suit the mood although the set of the old theater where the climax takes place was unconvincing to my eyes.

A neat little twist at the end is the icing on a well-written cake. Although the “urban legend supernatural villains” has been done before, it hasn’t been done much better than this. Wan and Whannell go for a more atmospheric and less visceral movie than Saw and excel at it.

Unfortunately, Kwanten is uninspiring as the lead, and Wahlberg walks through his part as if he’s done it all before – which he has. There are a few too many preposterous plot points that were completely unnecessary such as the police leaving the ventriloquist dummy in the crime scene apartment. In real life something like that would be bagged for evidence along with the package it arrived in if for no other reason to rule out that the dummy’s appearance wasn’t tied to the murder. Something tells me that even I, not a professional detective, would find it a bit unusual that a murder victim received a ventriloquist dummy on their doorstep minutes before their demise and being the unprofessional that I am would be inclined to investigate it.

There are some pretty nifty scares here and some genuine creep-out moments. Horror film buffs, of which I am one, will find it a fairly fresh take on a genre that has been somewhat weak historically – the supernatural urban legend. Fans of Saw might be disappointed at the lack of gore but this is a pretty decent spookfest for those who love their horror atmospheric more than visceral.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice atmospheric thrills. Some scary moments liable to give you the creepy-crawlies.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kwanten is not convincing as the lead. Lapses in logic throughout,
FAMILY MATTERS: Although the gore is cut down significantly from the Saw movies, the atmosphere is far too spooky for the impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Among the dolls seen in the climax are replicas of Edgar Bergen’s doll Charlie McCarthy, Jimmy Nelson’s doll Danny O’Day and Jigsaw’s doll from Saw.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a music video for Aiden’s “We Sleep Forever” as well as a featurette on the making of the film’s villain.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.2M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental/Stream), Amazon (Rent/Buy), iTunes (Purchase only), Vudu (Rent/Buy), Flixster (Rent/Buy), Target Ticket (Purchase Only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness Falls
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: My Old Lady

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The Spy Next Door


Jackie Chan's lost his nunchuks.

Jackie Chan’s lost his nunchuks.

(2010) Spy Action Comedy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Amber Valletta, Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley, Alina Foley, Magnus Scheving, Billy Ray Cyrus, George Lopez, Katherine Boecher, Mia Stallard, Maverick McWilliams, Quinn Mason, Margaret Murphy, Esodie Geiger, Arron Shiver, Lucas Till, Richard Christie, Kayleigh Burgess. Directed by Brian Levant

How many times have we seen this one – a divorced/widowed single dad/mom starts dating a new guy/gal who has special skills – i.e. a Navy Seal, a martial artist, a superspy. The kids are suspicious/hostile towards the new boyfriend/girlfriend and find many ways to discourage them from dating their parent/break up the relationship. For whatever contrived reason the boyfriend/girlfriend is left alone with the kids who stumble into/are caught in the middle of a dangerous situation. The boyfriend/girlfriend must rescue the kids/keep them safe and eventually they join forces to defeat the bad guy/girl.

This is pretty much the plot of this kid-centric spy. Bob Ho (Chan) is the boyfriend, a boring pen salesman who is really a Chinese spy working for the American government (which is a stretch of disbelief right there). He has recently defeated a Russian baddie (Scheving) who had developed a virus that breaks down petroleum. He intended to infect the world with it, forcing everyone to buy Russian petroleum at ludicrous prices. Why Paul Ryan didn’t think of this I’ll never know.

Anywho, the baddie is broken out by a kind of living Natasha Fatale named Creel (Boecher) and he’s keen to get the formula back and finish the job. The formula is tucked away safely on Bob’s laptop. Of course, the first rule of kidflicks is that one of the three kids (and there are always three) has to be a computer genius. Ian (Shadley), the middle kid, fits this bill. By the way, the other two kids are always an angst-y teen or pre-teen rebelling against everything and pissed off at everyone (Carroll) and a cute as a button princess (Foley). It is with this motley crew that Bob is left when his main squeeze – er, girlfriend – Gillian (Valletta) is called away on a family emergency.

Chan is getting on in years, as we all must but even at 55 (which is how old he was when he filmed this) he is still as entertaining an action hero as there has ever been. His comic timing is priceless, his physical gifts extraordinary. If he’s lost a step or two, and if he relies more on wires than jaw-dropping stunts, well, he’s earned the right. He’s done plenty of spy flicks in his native Hong Kong but the two Hollywood versions he’s done don’t hold a candle to them despite having much larger budgets.

Unfortunately, the buck pretty much stops there. The kids are more or less atrocious with the usually reliable Carroll playing surly, spoiled and bitchy which simply renders her character unwatchable. Carroll would  do much better work in pictures that followed this, particularly in Flipped. Valletta who’s also a decent actress has zero chemistry with Chan; one gets the feeling that they’re just friends without benefits; I can’t imagine the two of them sharing more than a chaste kiss on the cheek. Then again, this is a family film. Lopez and Cyrus as CIA buddies of Bob at least show up on time.

One of my big pet peeves is kid movies that treats kids like absolute morons. I get that playing to the kid fantasy of being in charge is a safe bet but even kids know that adults aren’t bumbling idiots from beginning to end and kid flicks generally portray them that way (moms are the sole exception and for good reason; piss off a mom and her brood won’t be seeing your movie). Nearly as high on the list is Hollywood’s complete fumbling of Chan. One of the great action heroes ever and basically was cast  either in buddy flicks or in hack job kidflicks. It’s like making an Avengers movie with the Hulk and having him stay as Bruce Banner the entire time. No wonder Chan grew disillusioned with Hollywood. I would too.

WHY RENT THIS: Jackie Chan.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Everything else.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon spy flick violence and a bit of rude humor that will delight the average six year old but might have their parents rolling their eyes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening montage is made up mostly of Chan’s Hong Kong-made spy movies.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Chan’s films traditionally show a gag reel of outtakes and pranks over the end credits; if you want to see it without the distraction of the credits, it’s here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $45.2M on a $28M production budget; the movie was just shy of making back it’s investment during the theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pacifier

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Stories We Tell