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FANGO Flashback: “DEAD SILENCE”

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For contemporary horror fans, the career of James Wan has been particularly interesting. After catapulting onto the radars of genre audiences everywhere with 2004’s SAW, the fillmaker was set back by two successive box office failures in 2007, which floundered his career until 2011 low budget hit INSIDIOUS. With 2013’s massive THE CONJURING, the redemption story goes a little farther with the upcoming Wan-produced prequel, ANNABELLE. After all, Wan looks to propel the very subgenre that nearly ended his relationship with horror seven years prior: doll horror.

While DEAD SILENCE has always been a controversial title in Wan’s oeuvre, right behind his revenge film DEATH SENTENCE, the film has its fair share of defenders. Though its writer and Wan’s longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell has publicly denounced the film, citing studio interference, script doctoring and his own inexperience, James Wan has been qieter, even going as far as to promote the film’s addition to Netflix Instant. And ironically enough, DEAD SILENCE came from Universal Studios, which later would trust Wan with the lucrative FAST AND FURIOUS franchise all these years later.

What exactly makes DEAD SILENCE such an odd little beast? For starters, the film is an exact tonal and narrative opposite of SAW, offering a supernaturally charged horror tale with classical inspiration as opposed to a visceral modern story of brutal and stylish inhumanity. In fact, from the opening piano music and old-school Universal logo, the film chases ambition with a bravado-laced recklessness. It’s that drive and inspiration which separates DEAD SILENCE from Wan’s horror output, making the film the least meticulously refined of his filmography.

In that reckless ambition also lies other aspects that make DEAD SILENCE surprisingly strong and equally fascinating. The first of which, and arguably most interesting, is the potential that shines through DEAD SILENCE’s set pieces; moments seemingly foreshadow aesthetics and visuals that’d populate Wan’s later output. In the funeral home crawlspace for instance, Wan offers a glimpse into the atmospheric visuals that would later be replicated for THE CONJURING’s basement scene following Lorraine’s tumble. And Mary Shaw’s design, as well as some foggy night sequences, hold cues that later would define “The Further” in Wan’s INSIDIOUS films.

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The second aspect born from Wan’s ambition is the genuine, if somewhat tonally inconsistent, scares in DEAD SILENCE. With the opening apartment scene featuring one-time horror It-girl Laura Regan boasting some of the scariest moments in the filmmaker’s career, DEAD SILENCE showcased Wan’s ability to stretch mileage out of the smallest movement and tease. While these flourishes become repetitive at times, they are nevertheless effective and carry the resonance of a waking nightmare. And jumping between Gothic horror inspirations and his own personal voice, DEAD SILENCE also provides a look at Wan’s versatility as a horror director, which may have been less apparent in SAW.

Perhaps the strongest aspect one could take in from DEAD SILENCE is Wan and Whannell’s penchant for world-building. While SAW became memorable for its graphic and gory set pieces (which producers would twist for every proceeding entry in the franchise), Wan and Whannell used that film as a stepping stone for the long, implausible mythos of Jigsaw. In DEAD SILENCE, the narrative feels completely cohesive and representative of its own world, with a story that’s contained in nature while open to intertwined tales. It’s through these devices that THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS have since operated to success and critical acclaim, even if the character work in DEAD SILENCE is much weaker (and clearly tinkered with) than those films.

While DEAD SILENCE isn’t Wan’s strongest or scariest effort, the film is thoroughly impressive and, at times, undeniably frightening. With a touch of Wan’s patience and Whannell’s signature absurdity, DEAD SILENCE emulates the Universal Horror style but aided by a contemporary bag of tricks; in another dimension, DEAD SILENCE would have spawned a franchise of its own. Instead, we’re left with an underrated gem of modern Gothic horror, peppered with as many terrifying puppets as it is with glimpses into the future of a modern master of horror.

DEAD SILENCE is now on Netflix Instant Streaming. ANNABELLE, directed by John Leonetti and executive produced by James Wan, hits theaters on October 3rd.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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