I think it’s fair to say that director James Wan is having a pretty good year so far. The Conjuring has been one of the surprise hits of the year and has met with much critical praise, Insidious Chapter Two is about to be released and will likely prove a big hit at the box office on a low-budget. Wan has had two films released in the same year before though and he wasn’t always so lucky.
After Saw became a massive hit on a very small budget, Wan chose not to stick around for the sequel and instead became a producer on that film and moved on to other projects. His next film would also be a horror film and was the first that his writing partner Leigh Whannell had written for a studio. Titled either Shhhh, Silence, The Doll or Mary Shaw during production, the film was finally released as Dead Silence in spring 2007. Beginning with the 1930s Universal Pictures logo, Dead Silence finds Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten)and his wife being delivered a ventriloquist dummy at their home in the city with the name ‘Billy’ scrawled on the dolls neck. Jamie goes out for take away and comes home to find his wife murdered with her tongue cut out. Jamie tracks the origins of Billy back to his home town of Ravens Fair and finds he belongs to Mary Shaw, a ventriloquist who was responsible for a spate of child murders and who placed a curse on the town when she died. Whilst in town Jamie finds that the town he once knew is more or less a ghost town. He confronts his estranged and re-married father and teams up with grizzled cop Detective Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) in order to stop Mary Shaw’s vengeful spirit.
Dead Silence was a big box office flop on release. It was ahead of its time by a few years and if it was released now then it would likely be a huge hit where this brand of creepy horror is in vogue. The most anticipated horror films of the time were; Hostel part two and Saw 4 which should tell you all you need to know. The experience was so bad that Leigh Whannell decided to never write for a studio ever again. At its core Dead Silence is gloriously old-fashioned and Wan proves again that he really knows how to use the frame in executing horror cinema and you can really see the seeds of what would lead to Insidious four years later here. The production design and atmosphere of Dead Silence recall some of the classic horror from the 60s and Wan does some inventive stuff, often transitioning scenes by zooming out of somebody’s eyeball or zooming into a road sign or map. Wan also uses sound wonderfully with the volume being turned right down whenever Mary Shaw is about to strike and the brilliant score by Charlie Clouser suddenly stopping which kicks the suspense off beautifully.
Ryan Kwanten is slightly miscast and appears too young to be a married man but he does well and is matched by Donnie Wahlberg playing an almost comically relaxed version of his character in Saw 2. Without being over the top gory or with an over reliance on CG, Dead Silence is very scary and scenes with cases of dummies or dolls in rocking chairs are spine tingling in the way that they are executed. It feels very much like horror is crying out for a new generation of iconic movie maniacs and Mary Shaw is perfect with her huge tongue made up of all her victims’ tongues. There were a few different endings for this film preferred by the writer and director and it’s interesting that the one we got is cut to echo the ending of Saw almost beat for beat. It’s still pretty good a surprise though and Dead Silence remains an underrated horror treat which would be perfect for Halloween.
Later that same year in late August, James Wan’s third film would be released. This was rather different though. Death Sentence was based on the follow-up novel to Death Wish written by Brian Garfield. Again it’s very much a case where the producers and studio didn’t quite know what to do with it. Kevin Bacon plays a happy family man Nick Hume whose world is shattered when his son is murdered in a gas station robbery as part of a gang initiation in a bad part of town. Nick is paralysed by grief and anger and when the young killer gets a soft sentence he takes matters into his own hands and clumsily kills the kid. The kid is the younger brother of Billy Darley (Garrett Hedlund) a deadly gang leader and he tracks Nick down endangering his family further. Things escalate with the cycle of violence increasing and taking in more and more people until Nick becomes a shell of his former self and is a reflection of the people he set out to kill in the first place.
Death Sentence wasn’t screened in advance for critics when it came out on August bank holiday weekend in 2007, so when they finally saw it they were all too happy to savage the film. Whilst the plot may be simple, the execution of Death Sentence is anything but. The effect that this film has on you is similar to a lot of the popular South Korean revenge films of the last few years. You walk out shell-shocked and depressed, revenge is an ugly business and not something to be glorified and Wan shows you this. With every murder that happens in the film there is a real sense of loss and finally when the climax comes, Wan changes Kevin Bacon’s physical appearance to such a degree that the ugliness reflects how his soul has rotted through this mission of vengeance.
The finale is brutal and somehow beautiful with a final confrontation not ending as expected. Death Sentence was probably the reason that Wan got the Fast and Furious 7 directing gig for Summer 2014 and he really proves his action credentials in one long foot chase starting at an office building, going through kitchens and winding up on the top of a parking structure. This is filmed in a series of very long takes by Dead Silence collaborator John Leonetti and really gets the adrenaline pumping. Due to the subject matter and its unrelenting bleakness, Death Sentence is fairly unknown and seems to be a film people don’t return to because it is such a tough watch. However it is far better than most gave it credit for and could be a good indication of what we will be in for next summer.