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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88 Minutes


Al Pacino looks thrilled to be in this movie.

Al Pacino looks thrilled to be in this movie.

(2007) Thriller (TriStar) Al Pacino, Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Amy Brennerman, William Forsythe, Deborah Kara Unger, Benjamin McKenzie, Neal McDonough, Leah Cairns, Stephen Moyer, Christopher Redman, Brendan Fletcher, Kristina Copeland, Tammy Hui, Vicky Huang, Victoria Tennant, Michal Yannai, Paul Campbell, Kaj-Erik Eriksen, Heather Dawn. Directed by Jon Avnet

Young Jamie Cates (Hui) witnesses the brutal murder of her twin sister (Huang). Although it was dark, Cates identifies former Eagle Scout Jon Forster (McDonough) as the culprit. Although there is little physical evidence tying him to the crime, the testimony of noted forensic psychologist Jack Gramm (Pacino) is enough to convince the jury to convict Forster of the heinous crime and sentence him to death.

Flash forward nine years. It is the eve of Forster’s execution and Gramm has been out partying with his students, afterwards waking up with a stranger (Cairns). He is stunned to learn that overnight, one of his students (Copeland) has been murdered in exactly the same way as Joanie Cates. The FBI, with acerbic agent Parks (Forsythe) and U.S. Attorney Guber (Redman) want to have a word with Gramm at his high-tech consulting office in downtown Seattle. At first he thinks that they want to pick his brain about the crime, but it seems they have a different agenda. Gramm stalks out of the office, leaving his long-suffering assistant Shelly (Brennerman) holding the bag.

Afterwards, Gramm begins to get disturbing phone calls; the first informing him he only had 88 minutes to live. In the meantime, the callers, voice heavily disguised, counts down the time left in a series of frequent phone calls. While this happens, another one of Gramm’s students, Lauren (Sobieski) is attacked, his car is blown up and a mysterious assailant in black leathers and a motorcycle helmet is shooting at him. Plucky teaching assistant Kim (Witt) thinks her volatile ex-husband LaForge (Moyer) may have something to do with it – he served time in Walla Walla with Forster – but Jack is convinced it’s an inside job. With time ticking down, suspects a-plenty and Jack himself under suspicion for the murder of his student, he’ll need all his skills to figure out who’s behind this and save his own life, as well as the lives of those around him.

Pacino is one of the best actors of his generation, but he has little to do here but scowl. He is clearly the centerpiece of the film, but at times it feels like he’s just giving a by-the-numbers performance, literally phoning it in (his character spends a whole lot of time on his cell phone). Pacino’s character is supposed to be a womanizer, but I get the feeling that while Gramm surrounds himself with beautiful women, the casting of Witt, Sobieski, Brennerman, Unger, Cairns and Copeland was done more for their looks rather than whether or not they were right for the part. Even so, in a role that’s not his best Pacino is still always watchable. Sobieski, in particular, is cruelly wasted; she’s one of my favorite actresses but she is clearly uncomfortable with certain aspects of her character, which is poorly developed. In fact the motivation for her actions doesn’t make sense with other aspects of her character. Not to give anything away, but it makes the whole crux of the movie a bit laughable.

Who did Pacino’s hair? He looks like an extra from a Lita Ford video. Yes, I get it; womanizer, vain, rich – but a man of those qualities would probably pick a more contemporary hairstyle for himself. The writing is really lazy, relying on cliché over character development and exploring no new ground whatsoever.

While I like the concept a lot, the filmmakers don’t really make use of it effectively. There are a ton of lapses in logic, coincidences that stretch credulity, plot points that lead nowhere, characters that don’t need to be here, characters that act wildly out of character without explanation…need I go on?

This is one I can’t honestly recommend. It started with a poorly written script and that seems to have defeated a pretty talented cast and crew. Avnet as a director has done much better work than this, including Up Close and Personal and The War. I usually am forgiving of movies that push the envelope of believability – after all, it’s only a movie – but this takes it a little bit too far. All I ask is that a movie remains true to its own internal logic, and this one simply doesn’t. Pacino fans may want to check it out, but there really isn’t any other reason to go see it as a rental or even as a free download.

WHY RENT THIS: Pacino, even in the worst movies, is worth checking out. Interesting concept. Gorgeous women.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written. Lapses in logic. Extraneous characters and plot points.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some brief nudity, a whole lot of bad language and a surfeit of implied and actual mayhem.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: From the time that Gramm is informed that he has 88 minutes to live, the movie runs in real time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on Avnet and his directing style.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32.6M on a $30M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nick of Time

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Amazing Spider-Man 2