On March 16, 2007, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell released Dead Silence in theaters, hot off the heels of their smash 2004 low-budget horror film Saw. Upon its release, Dead Silence was pretty much dead in the water, grossing an abysmal $22 million worldwide off a $20 million budget, and earning a rotten 20% on Rotten Tomatoes. On August 31, 2011, Whannell took his blog, The Word in the Stone, and wrote a beyond-frank post entitled “Dud Silence: The Hellish Experience Of Making A Bad Horror Film.” In case that doesn’t clue you in on how he felt about making the film, here’s how Whannell began his piece:
There’s nothing I love more than a good mountain climbing metaphor. Speaking in mountain climbing metaphors is a bad habit of mine. Maybe it’s because I’m a screenwriter. It’s like I’m a mountain climber and I can’t stop sculpting mountains out of mashed potatoes in my spare time. See what I did there? I did it again. I can’t stop. And never is a mountain climbing metaphor more appropriate than when I talk about my experiences working in Hollywood. Guess what experiences I’m about to relay to you in oh-so-riveting fashion? That’s right, my friend. Specifically, the worst experience I’ve ever had in this craaaaazy town of tinsel. Let’s get to it. Expect a few mountains along the way.
The worst experience he’s ever had. A promise of mountains. A mixing of metaphors! Is Dead Silence really as bad as the writer of Dead Silence makes it out to be? How does it play within the ever-expanding context of Whannell’s career? And was it sneakily a warm-up for his upcoming Universal monster movie The Invisible Man? Let’s climb this mountain, shall we?
Firstly, bluntly: Dead Silence is bad. It brings me no pleasure to say this, as Saw is an extremely special movie to me, and both Wan and Whannell’s filmmaking efforts since have continuously brought me joy (Upgrade all day, The Conjuring 2 all day!). But this particular film feels caught between two worlds, stuck between a vastly different set of aesthetic impulses, and constantly weighed down by its wooden storytelling and performances.
And when I say “wooden,” I mean that just a touch literally, as the film’s primary source of terror comes from a dastardly ventriloquist puppet. After losing his wife (Laura Regan) in a garishly gruesome murder coming off the heels of receiving an anonymous dummy in the mail (yes), Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) falls down a rabbit hole involving Mary Shaw (a devilishly effective Judith Roberts). Shaw was a ventriloquist who performed in the spookily named town of Raven’s Fair, at the spookily named theatre called, literally, the Grand Guignol. And wouldn’t you know it, she had a penchant for collecting dolls, a desire for literally burying herself as a doll, and ripping out tongues and other human parts to make new gruesome creations to puppet. Is she back from the grave, out for fresh materials? Can Jamie survive the ordeal and get his spooky dad (Bob Gunton) and spookier stepmom (Amber Valletta) to admit the truth? And will frumpled detective Donnie Wahlberg ever stop shaving?
No, that’s not a Whannell-blog-post-esque metaphor. Literally, Wahlberg’s character is always shaving in every scene, a piece of bonkers visual comedy to communicate the harried nature of the detective without needing to spend any time actually developing the character (it’s such a defining point for him, that in his final moments on screen, Wahlberg is literally framed out of focus in the background, while his electric shaver gets a hero close-up in the foreground). This type of big, loud, on-the-nose choice speaks to the kind of film I think Wan and Whannell were attempting to make, one perhaps crystallized and better rendered in the Conjuring-verse title The Nun: A loud, pop-art take on gothic, Hammer Studios-styled horror.
Dead Silence is rendered in a wide 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Its DP, regular Wan collaborator John R. Leonetti, swoops his damn camera around and through all kinds of moving compositions, like David Fincher ate a bunch of Skittles and really went for it. The sets are grandiose and expansive, all color-corrected to a sickly grey-blue. The backstory of Mary Shaw is rooted in the most primary impulses of Gothic horror, ever since the days of Poe — familial traumas and base desires explored to their most morbidly logical conclusions. In some ways, the film feels like a yearning toward the eventual “back-to-basics” Whannell/Wan successes of Insidious and The Conjuring, and I can’t help but feel like the film would be much more successful if they were allowed to explore that tone as purely as possible. Except…
…it’s still struggling with the Saw of it all. That film, maybe the horror film I’ve watched the most in my lifetime, smacks you over the head with “edgy 2000s aesthetics.” Quick cuts, abruptly sped-up motions, bonkers camera reveals of gruesome imagery, industrial-meets-Carpenter scores courtesy of Charlie Clouser — all of this crushes within the context of Saw, a low-budget chamber horror that demands this kind of treatment. Know what kind of film these aesthetic choices stick out like a sore thumb in? Yep, that’s right — even though Dead Silence explicitly wants to be an old-school gothic horror (with the old-fashioned Universal Pictures logo to boot!), it’s stuffed with these types of show-offy, low-budget covering, quick-and-slick filmmaking tics, and it gives everything a sheen of unintentional comedy. Approximately one sequence fuses these two impulses correctly — a brief moment where Wan and editor Michael Knue cut quickly between Kwanten and Wahlberg running and Mary Shaw slowly moving, the sound design jarringly stopping everytime we cut to Shaw. In every other instance, one choice ruins the other — culminating absurdly with a Saw-esque twist ending rendered in almost identical filmmaking fashion. As such, Dead Silence serves as a curious artifact of artistic transition, a rickety bridge that will one day be solidified.
So what about Whannell’s inflammatory blog? What insights can the writer shed on this flick? Well, dear reader, now I must share my own mountain to climb: Whannell’s entire blog has since been deleted off the Internet. And while The Wayback Machine has archived the home page for posterity, the “Dud Silence” post remains inactive. Thus, I must rely on excerpts other Internet sources have copied and pasted, and my own memory of reading the original piece when first posted. Here’s how Whannell and Wan got involved with Dead Silence to begin with:
It all started when James and I returned from the Sundance Film Festival, where we had screened ‘Saw’ to much success. Our ‘representatives’ promptly told us that we should get another deal for a film stitched up before it was released. It was presented as a kind of insurance – if ‘Saw’ was a flop, we had another film to fall back on. Seems logical. There was only one problem – I didn’t have any ideas for a new film. I had barely been able to catch my breath throughout the whole ‘Saw’ experience, let alone dream up another film idea. Instead of telling our representatives that they had to wait until I came up with an idea I really liked though, I locked myself in the bedroom of the crappy apartment we had rented in Hollywood and tried to force an idea out like a particularly stubborn hangover shit. It was creativity at gunpoint. If I could go back in time, I would politely tell everyone to go fuck themselves, but back then….no. I paced and paced and even took up smoking for a while, so stressed out was I.
During this stressed period of forced idea generation, Whannell eventually came up with the germ of the Dead Silence idea, pitching it to Universal Pictures. They accepted, but immediately began forcing their own input. In particular, the studio wanted Whannell to expand on the rules of his dummy and his Mary Shaw, something that really bothered Whannell (“Only in a place as fucking stupid as Hollywood would someone use the word ‘rules’ when talking about” monsters, he explained punchily). This mandate accounts for all the “stop and info dump exposition” moments in the final feature, moments that truly grind everything to a halt. Eventually, neither party was happy with the creative direction, and Universal brought on some uncredited script doctors — which made Wan unhappy, too (“The shooting of the film was just as nightmarish for James Wan, the director, but I’ll let him tell you that story in his blog one day,” said Whannell diplomatically). Finally, after the fraught production, “when the film was released, Universal did zero promotion and dumped the film into theaters like toxic waste into a river. Insult, meet injury.”
Now, obviously, Whannell and the studio have since patched things up, as his films Upgrade and The Invisible Man have both been produced with Universal and Universal subsidiary Blumhouse (if I had to guess, this would be why the blog was deleted). And his final thoughts in his post almost play with a sense of humorous, wistful irony in our current context:
After everything is said and done, I’m almost glad Dead Silence happened, because it gave me an extreme, coal-face lesson in what not to do. It was like learning to swim by leaping off Niagara Falls. I only write scripts on spec now, which means that I write them in my own time without getting paid and then take them out into the world to see if anyone’s interested. Never again will I enter the arranged marriage of selling a pitch. I have also become very gun-shy about working with studios. In the world of independent film, what you write ends up on screen. Plus, they don’t have the money to bring in script doctors! Works fine for me. Who knows, maybe one day I will work with a studio again…
Maybe one day, indeed. And judging by our interview with him about his latest Universal monster movie, perhaps the next blog post he writes will have a much more positive tone of voice.