It seemed like any other night for young couple Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) and Lisa Ashen (Laura Regan), although he was trying to unblock the kitchen sink before he made dinner for them until she suggested getting a takeaway. Just as Jamie was thinking this over there was a knock at the door, and on investigation they found a large box had been delivered, with no note or clue as to where it had come from. When they opened it, they saw it contained a ventriloquist's dummy, and while Lisa was charmed, her husband was not so sure - and he was right to be scared.
Ventriloquist dummies had been part of the horror landscape for decades, albeit usually more sparsely used, from the classic chiller Dead of Night through Dario Argento's Deep Red up to the insane Batman villain The Ventriloquist, but you could go back to Erich von Stroheim in the extremely creaky The Great Gabbo to find filmmakers wondering exactly what effect the dummies might have on their owners. Not that in real life anyone thought Roger de Courcey or Keith Harris were channelling some kind of twisted madness through Nookie Bear or Orville the Duck, but the unease some can feel for large dolls is a fair subject for frights.
This example took that idea and ran with it, conjuring up every variation on the vent act that they could, they being writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan. They will forever be known as the creators of Saw, which may be a blessing because it set them on a succesful career path, but also a curse as many audiences expected more of the same from them, something they were not quite happy to go along with. But for those who recognised their talent, this reluctance to stick with formula was refreshing, and their methods here made for undeniably entertaining and even eccentric setpieces, all variations on a theme.
What sets Jamie on his path of nightmare is that when he goes out to fetch the takeaway, he leaves Lisa alone with the doll, and when he returns he is horrified to see she has been gruesomely murdered, left with her tongue torn out. As nobody was about except him, investigating detective Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) points the finger of suspicion at Jamie, but lacks the evidence to arrest him. This offers him the chance to go back to his hometown where he thinks he can get to the dark heart of this mystery, and the father (Bob Gunton) he left behind and never got along with, who has now remarried - again - to younger wife Ella (Amber Valletta).
The real stars of this are the production designer Julie Berghoff and art director Anastasia Masaro, who did a great job of evoking the creepiness inherent in the cursed old place cliché, especially the design of the theatre which, now abandoned, hides the secret of what the movie's antagonist is up to. The past coming back to haunt the present is what informs the scares, so everything has a careworn look, from the classic thirties Universal logo at the begining to the musty surroundings that Jamie ends up in as he finds a story of revenge is behind the killings, which have been going on for many years. If that part, the venerable guilty community yarn, is far from original, it was what Whannell and Wan did with it that counted, building up to a truly inspired twist by way of a collection of dolls and a spectre which sews together all those tongues to make a very long one. Proof that not all horror movies out of Hollywood in the 21st Century had to be remakes or sequels, Dead Silence was a treat for fans. Music by Charlie Clouser.