Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dead Silence: American Gothic

Pretty much my brief for this site is that I think horror movies should be taken seriously as cinema, and at their best be taken seriously as art. Serious, serious, serious serious serious. But there's definitely something to be said for movies that are scary for the sake of being scary, where the impulse to consider its imagery in context or to read the overall film is subsumed in the desire to just watch the spectacle and take the ride.  Not saying there's no way to view these films critically, just that sometimes you run into one that's so thoroughly itself that to do so almost seems beside the point.

So yeah, Dead Silence is like that.

The first clue that we're not in for your typical mid-Aughts po-faced scarefest is the Universal Pictures logo from the 1930s. The second is a title card explaining the origin of the word "ventriloquism" from the belief that the spirits of the dead could speak from breath in the stomach. The credits play over grainy black and white footage of someone drawing designs and diagrams, then carving and building…a ventriloquist's dummy.

That's right, they're going right for the evil ventriloquist's dummy. That's what's up.

Meanwhile, back at the movie, Jamie and his wife are taking a break from trying to fix the sink to enjoy some takeout Chinese and puzzle over the mysterious package he's just received in the mail. It's a very well-made ventriloquist's dummy, dropped off at their door by an unseen person. In the time it takes Jamie to run across the street to get dinner and a rose for his sweetheart, well, he comes back and follows his wife's beckoning voice back to their bedroom where holy shit she's dead on the bed with her tongue ripped out. 

Needless to say, Jamie's the only suspect in what appears to be his wife's murder. Naturally, there's only one way to straighten the situation out: Jamie needs to go back to his hometown to find out if his wife's mysterious death is connected to a local legend about the vengeful ghost of an old ventriloquist. You know, like you do.

This pretty much sets the tone for the movie. Jamie's hometown is called Raven's Fair (let me say that again - it's called Raven's Fair), and it's a town whose glory days are long gone. Everyone's left who can leave, Main Street is shuttered and decaying, and it seems like the only people left are the undertaker, Jamie's father, and Jamie's young, suspiciously attractive stepmother, who seems to be a good thirty years younger than pretty much everyone else. The ruined theater (described as "a grand theater" in its heyday) is called the Guignol Theater, so no, there's no subtlety here.

That's to the movie's advantage. Dead Silence is unapologetically lurid - lightning flashes, lanterns, and flashlights are the primary sources of illumination, and it's pretty much raining all the time, except when it's dark. And when it rains - yep, it pours. Abandoned rooms aren't just dusty, they're choked thick with cobwebs. Jamie's father lives in a huge stone mansion with lots of dark wood and antique furniture covered by drop cloths. And did I mention that Jamie's family name is Ashen? Ashen? Who does that? That's amazing. This enthusiasm for the material extends to moments of quirky humor -  the obligatory police officer chasing Jamie is sort of cartoonishly world-weary - he carries an electric shaver everywhere with him to fight a losing battle with his five-o'clock shadow, and this pays off in a nice gag during the climax. 

In fact, that's probably the best way to describe this movie - it's a cartoon. Everything is exaggerated and highly stylized to good effect, the story isn't especially deep, but it doesn't need to be - ventriloquist dummies are fucking creepy, and so ventriloquist dummies inhabited by the spirit of a vengeful ghost are going to be EVEN CREEPIER. What this movie is about is momentum and scares - putting the viewer in a place where they're watching something that's scary both because it capitalizes on things that scare us (ventriloquist dummies, the dark, mysterious voices) and our awareness of the sort of set pieces that will end in a scare. You know when you're being winched to the top of the roller coaster that the plunge is coming and it's going to be terrifying. There was more than one point in this movie where I actually found myself saying "oh shit, here we go." Waiting for the plunge. 

It's a story made with tremendous affection and generosity for horror from a simpler time - there are some nods to newer ghost movies in the appearance of the ghost's victims, but it' s largely a product of unrelenting atmosphere and a story played (mostly) straight and with a refreshing absence of self-consciousness. It's a celebration of a certain type of movie you don't see much any more - it's gruesome and creepy without being really gory, spooky without relying overly on cheap startle moments, and saves a final surprise for the end that's actually pretty well-earned by what came before without feeling like bait for a sequel. In short, Dead Silence is really fun, wholeheartedly gothic in its appeal to our base fears, and a nice reminder of the joys of a simple scare.

Unavailable from Netflix