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Don’t Scream: Revisiting Wan & Whannell’s ‘Dead Silence’ (2007)

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“As a preliminary exercise let the learner place himself before a mirror… and endeavor, while in the act of speaking, to maintain a fixity of countenance, a rigidity of the muscles and nerves of the face and lips, so that no visible movement may be noticed in them… let him begin by enunciating the vowels fully forward in the mouth, saying, with distinctiveness and regularity, each sound by itself – ah-a-e-i-o-u.”

Australian creatives James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell, famous for their collaboration on several horror films including Saw (2004) and Insidious (2010), and proven admirers of creepy dolls, are undisputed champions of Millenium horror. Their use of dark imagery, startling jump scares, gloomy atmospheres, and imaginative villains dominated 2000s popular culture. While Whannell has proven he is a master storyteller, Wan has solidified himself as a premiere horror director. Yet, despite their talent, their films are not immune to critique, especially their sophomore feature Dead Silence (2007), which had box office trouble and unfortunate reviews.

“Next close the mouth, and rest the upper teeth on the inner part of the lower lip. Be certain that the expression is perfectly easy and natural. Then practice the vowel sounds without disturbing the expression. It will soon be discovered that several different tones can be produced on the same vowel. Begin by forcing the sound against the extreme front part of the roof of the mouth.”

Dead Silence follows Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) on the hunt for his wife’s murderer after a mysterious ventriloquist dummy named Billy appears on their doorstep in a box with no return address. While Jamie goes to retrieve takeout, his wife Lisa (Laura Regan), following a deafening silence, is brutally thrown from their bedroom, and her tongue is ripped out. Jamie arrives home and hears Lisa’s voice coming from the bedroom. He finds her sitting up under the covers, her tongueless mouth agape. Unfortunately, Jamie becomes Detective Lipton’s (Donnie Wahlberg) main suspect in her murder. However, Jamie senses something malevolent took his wife from him.

“Then force the sound against the back part of the roof of the mouth–the palate–still keeping the countenance easy and natural.”

Jamie ventures back to his and Lisa’s hometown of Ravens Fair. Nearly abandoned, Ravens Fair has since been deteriorating from its former glory, having once had a marvelous theater that was celebrated by the town. Also found deteriorating is Jamie’s estranged father Edward (Bob Gunton), now on his fourth wife, the charming Ella Ashen (Amber Valletta). Jamie is adamant that the doll, Billy, has something to do with Lisa’s death. With the help of local mortician Henry Walker (Michael Fairman), Jamie is introduced to the gruesome history of Mary Shaw, the town ventriloquist, and her many children, including Billy.

“Next, practice to stop, or shut off the sound by the upper part of the windpipe. In order to ascertain the exact spot here indicated, perform the act of swallowing and you will find a subdued ‘cluck’ made in the throat at the precise spot where you can develop the power of speaking inwardly.”

Mary Shaw was an expert ventriloquist in 1930s-1940s Raven’s Fair. Wan and Whannell use the once-deemed evil entertaining act as fodder for the film, which only adds to the sinister lore of Shaw. Dating back to Ancient Greece, the act of ventriloquy was performed by engastrimyths (breaking down to ‘in,’ ‘stomach,’ and ‘speech’). According to ventriloquist Valentine Vox, engastrimyths were linked to necromancy, “the ancient art of allowing a dead person’s spirit to enter the necromancer and speak to the living.” In the 16th century, the act of throwing one’s voice or speaking without moving the lips disturbed many, including “disgruntled God-fearers” who “believed mysterious voices emanated from any number of holes in the ventriloquist’s body—from the vagina to the nostrils.” Some centuries later, ventriloquism became more benign. However, its link to spirits and the dead continue to haunt the art’s legacy. All but one child in Mary Shaw’s audience at the Guignol Theater on Moss Lake in 1941 believed her act. Young Michael Ashen interrupted Mary’s show, “I can see your lips moving!” Soon after the brief confrontation between Michael, Mary, and Billy, Michael disappears. The town blames Mary. An angry mob descends upon Mary’s home and cuts out her tongue.

“Let the above be considered the first and most important lesson to be carefully and diligently practiced. Above all, be careful to avoid straining the throat. The power of contraction and expansion must be developed gradually.”

While intriguing and disturbing, this backstory left some audience members and film reviewers unfulfilled. The film barely earned back its budget of $20 million and was given poor ratings by reviewers (Tomatometer: 20%, with an audience score of 51%; Letterboxed score: 2.7/5.0; IMDb score: 6.1/10). When released, Fangoria’s Michael Gingold wrote, “Unfortunately, the story isn’t fresh enough and its people aren’t compelling enough to keep the spookery from seeming old hat… Before Mary’s spirit comes after a victim, all noises drop off the soundtrack… Perhaps that’s what the title Dead Silence is meant to refer to—but too often, unfortunately, it also reflects the likely audience reaction to this film.”

Despite a bumpy start, audiences have returned to Dead Silence over the past decade and have paid their respects to Wan and Whannell’s story, the balance of jump scares and deafening silence, the artistry of Billy and his siblings, and the overwhelming gloomy atmosphere without levity. Additional credit for the bleak atmosphere goes to composer Charlie Clouser. He has worked with Nine Inch Nails and Rob Zombie, and has produced scores for several Saw movies as well as the theme for American Horror Story since 2011.

Reconsider Dead Silence. Mary Shaw belongs in the same category as Bloody Mary and Candyman. The specters of both Mary and Billy earned their place amongst other spooky horror titans that warn you of their seemingly unavoidable evil.

Beware the stare of Mary Shaw
She had no children, only dolls
And if you see her in your dreams
Be sure to never, ever scream…
Or she’ll rip your tongue out at the seam.

Sources:

Fangoria Movie Review: ‘Dead Silence’ By Michael Gingold” March 16, 2019 

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“Inside the World’s Only Museum Dedicated to Ventriloquism.” Smithsonian Magazine May 2, 2019, Jennifer Nalewicki

“The Demonic Origins of Ventriloquism.” Atlas Obscura March 28, 2016, Andy Wright

“How to Begin and Practice Ventriloquism, with Entertaining Dialogues for Rehearsal.” Essay by Antonio Blitz. In The Boys’ Own Book of Indoor Sports and Choice Parlor Games. New York, NY: Hurst & Co., Publishers, 122 Nassau St., 1878

 

 

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Abigail Waldron is a queer historian who specializes in American horror cinema. Her book "Queer Screams: A History of LGBTQ+ Survival Through the Lens of American Horror Cinema" is available for purchase from McFarland Books. She resides in Brooklyn, New York.

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‘Scream 6’ Trailer: Does Ghostface have a MetroCard?

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In Scream (2022) Dewey said, “This one just feels different,” and that’s exactly how I feel after watching the Scream 6 trailer.

A New Scream Movie Set In A Whole New Backdrop

Setting a horror movie (or any movie for that matter) in NYC isn’t exactly a brand new idea—but somehow, it feels that way in a Scream movie. This trailer has it all: bodegas, dusty elevators, chase scenes, a Freddy Krueger Halloween costume, a Ghostface museum, and Hayden Panettiere’s Kirby freaking Reed. The amount of times I said, “Oh my God,” while watching this trailer—well, it was a lot.

The highlights of the trailer are the bodega attack scene, the Ghostface shrine scene, Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers getting her first-ever Ghostface call. The bodega scene and Gale’s phone call feel like they could be the openings, especially since they changed up the formula with the last one having Jenna Ortega’s Tara Carpenter be the opening kill but surviving to kill her attacker at the end of the movie. The Ghostface shrine scene looks incredibly epic—fans online are already dissecting all the Easter eggs (do we even call those Easter eggs?) shown in that scene. We see Stu’s red robe from the first film, Tatum’s outfit she dies in, Mrs. Loomis’s white blazer, the plaid shirt Jill Roberts dies in from Scream 4, Billy’s bloodied white Tshirt, a mask from the play in Scream 2, guns, knives, and more. It’s going to be a scene that has us Scream stans drooling in theaters. As to who is the owner of said shrine—well, as of now, that’s the unknown part.

The bodega scene also feels both intense and brutal. We see Tara and Melissa Barrera’s Sam running in for help, followed by Ghostface who tears through the customers and owner to get to the sisters. This feels unlike anything the franchise has done before. Usually, if Ghostface is doing a public murder, it’s like Jada Pinkett’s iconic opening death scene from Scream 2—in plain sight, but no one but the two intended victims are killed. There’s something about a kill happening so publicly that’s terrifying.

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Say a Prayer for Mother

We also get gay icon Gale’s first-ever Ghostface call—and a chase scene to go along with it. We know Gale gives good chase scene, the one in Scream 2 being one of the best of the franchise, so I’m quite excited for her to get her own extended scene. But, as with every new Scream movie, I’m now incredibly worried for Mother ™. Killing Gale feels both like a no-go of the franchise but also like the most shocking thing they could do? But, please don’t kill Gale—or I’ll become The Joker/one of those toxic fans (jk…but maybe not).

Kirby Makes Her Return to the Scream Franchise

Also, Kirby is used sparingly in the trailer—I expected Gale to be featured less and Kirby more heavily. But boy, is it so nice to see her back. The fandom can sometimes be torn on Scream 4, but the character Kirby Reed tends to be universally beloved. The idea of her and Jasmin Savoy-Brown’s Mindy being on screen together has me hyped. Could Kirby die? Could Kirby be the killer? I don’t know, but the one thing I am sure of is that she will be a delight to see again.

Mason Gooding’s Chad is also there looking as hot as always—and probably most likely to be the one to bite it. I will mourn the loss of him and his beautiful chest if he is the one to die. We also barely focus on the newer newbies in the trailer, as I imagine, not unlike in Scream 2; all of these new characters will die. But maybe they won’t! The most fun thing about these new additions to the franchise is that they don’t fully follow the rules. I mean, Ghostface has a shotgun at one point—anything could happen! Maybe Samara Weaving’s character becomes our new Final Girl!

We Miss Sidney Prescott

I am sad the reason Neve Campbell isn’t coming back as Sidney Prescott is due to not being paid her worth and not just for the fact that our girl Sidney deserves a break. But I do think Sidney Prescott deserves a break. I am curious though, as to how they’ll tie it back to her as it usually ties back to Sidney but, again, maybe this one won’t! The most fun thing about this newest movie is it feels even less likely that they’re following the previous rules of the franchise, which automatically makes this one feel fresh.

If Sex and the City can spend years saying New York City is a main character, then so can one Scream movie. So, let’s rejoice that in the year 2023 we’re still getting new Scream movies and make sure to light some prayer candles for my favorite final girl, Gale Weathers.

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Underrated Horror Gems of 2022 You May Have Missed

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2022 has been, by and large, one of the most incredible years in horror movie history. We’ve seen instant classics rise one after another, and the slate for 2023 doesn’t show any signs of slowing.

You’ll be seeing best-of-the-year lists with the most obvious suspects at the top: Nope, Prey, Pearl & X, Hellraiser, and many more films that I just don’t have enough space to list here. And those movies deserve all the praise they get! But I’m a champion of the underdog, and I can’t just sit by and let great films go by without showing them to as many people as I can.

So, I’ve made a list of the most unsung heroes of horror in 2022, both creators and their creations, for you to check out in 2023. Because even though the year is over and Christmas has passed, its gifts of horror are far from gone!

HONORABLE MENTION: THE LONG WALK

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This is going to be the shortest of my mentions on this list, not for any fault of the film; it’s a heartbreaking and masterfully crafted venture, but my rewatch of the film has not radically changed my opinion of it. It’s still pretty dope, and you should still check it out!

If you need any more convincing, I have a more detailed (and positively glowing) review of The Long Walk already up on this site, and I think you should give it a shot if you’re at all a fan of horror drama or sci-fi horror. You will not be disappointed.

 

ALL OF GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, BUT ESPECIALLY THE VIEWING

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And speaking of sci-fi horror, let’s talk about The Viewing…

Once I’m done ranting about how Cabinet of Curiosities did not get the flowers it deserved!

I was fully expecting Horror Twitter to prostrate itself before Guillermo Del Toro and all the artists he platformed for making such an excellent collection of short films, and instead I saw a mere sprinkling of tweets. A tiddlywink of tweets. For shame. All the shorts in this series are great in their own right, there’s not a single bad one among them, and I encourage you to check them all.

But the one I feel got the least credit was Panos Cosmatos’ The Viewing (written by Mandy collaborator Aaron Stewart-Ahn). The creature design in The Viewing is only matched by Hellraiser (2022)’s special effects wise, which tracks given that The Viewing feels exactly like something that Barker would have written. In it, a hedonistic hermit assembles a group of like-minded eccentric individuals to witness something incredible, wanting to reignite their hearts and minds. The viewing, like many sights man was not meant to see, goes terribly wrong, and Cosmatos makes it look earth-shakingly fantastic.

The Viewing is a slow-paced, coke-induced dream of an even dreamier late-70s aesthetic that is embodied in its upper-echelon set design and production. It brings together a colorful cast of the most unexpected character actors (Eric Andre, Sofia Boutella, and Peter Wellers together? Seriously?) all under the same roof, executing the intricate construct of a true-blue horror visionary.

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NOCEBO

Nocebo released in early November, and despite the time that’s gone by, the internet hype wave never really carried this excellent film to the shores of cultural consciousness as it should have. This supernatural horror was a rare international collaboration of the Film Development Council of the Philippines and Screen Ireland, and like Detention which I spotlighted last year, is inspired by true horrific events; namely, the 2015 Kentex slipper factory fire that ravaged the Philipines.

Irish director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley, who headed the trippy sci-fi horror Vivarium, weave the tragic tale of Christine (Eva Green), a flourishing fashion designer who, after being attacked by a wild dog, begins suffering from a mysterious ailment and becomes the inadvertent employer of Diana (Chai Fonacier), a picture-perfect nanny with preternatural healing abilities.

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It reminds me of both Possession, in following a descent into madness, and Hereditary, in following the slow and grisly dissolution of a family. Cinematography-wise, it’s well-executed but this tale of supernatural revenge and traditional medicine that harms more than it fixes shines when it lets the actors breathe. Green’s performance is wrenching and works perfectly in contrast to Fonacier’s reserved and captivating coldness.

The general atmosphere of the film is one that you can feel yourself walking through, slowly picking up the pieces of a tragedy that makes you feel helpless. The final sequence is shockingly powerful and hard to watch, so brace yourself for this one.

SISSY

When popular influencer Cecilia runs into her best friend and unrequited love Emma all grown up and engaged, the hen’s weekend she’s invited to takes a turn for the worst when confronted by her childhood bully; what begins as a reunion turns into a bloody brilliant rampage as Sissy…sorry, Cecilia, goes out for retribution.

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I watched Sissy the same week as Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, A24’s smash hit, and was blown away by how great both were. Both are about parties gone horribly wrong, both are out of the park at being equal parts black comedy and horror, and both have a satirical streak that runs through their entire scripts. There’s a special kind of balance only these two movies achieve where they can have you ratcheted tight with anxiety one minute and cracking up laughing at grotesque absurdities (emotional and physical) the next.

Whereas Bodies opts for a much darker setting literally and figuratively, Sissy’s photography choices are aptly matched with one of the film’s core themes; though everything is cheery and bright on the surface, this is regularly juxtaposed with the sinister and rotten relationships we foster with our self-image and others, as well as some plain old nasty human cruelty.

In an age where toxic positivity is on a meteoric rise, and where the loudest mental health awareness advocates tend to have a beam in their eye the size of their follower count, Sissy is the film that tackles that modern attitude with acerbic wit.

And, no spoilers, but you will not look at kangaroos the same after this one.

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SALOUM

But by far, the most underrated horror film of the year for me was Saloum.

Saloum follows a trio of mercenaries known as the Bangui’s Hyenas. Escaping a massacre they didn’t cause with gold that isn’t theirs, sabotage forces the guns-for-hire to hide out in the small coastal town of Saloum, where, the characters face phantoms from the country’s past as well as their own.

This Shudder exclusive release needs to get a reassessment from the public, and part of me wonders if it’s because of its structure. Horror fans are effectively watching a crime thriller for the first 40 minutes with only soft hints of horror dashed in. After that point, all hell breaks loose as the tale becomes a horrific story of survival for the crew, with some very frightening monsters to boot.

On the surface, Saloum is a tale of revenge, and it tells you that upfront. On a deeper level, Saloum is a movie about myth in a uniquely Senegalese tradition. The personal myth, the mythologization of war and its combatants, and the mythos of a country. It sells these ideas with an intensely charismatic cast and some impeccable directing. The movie is a perfect genre fusion, slick and stylish without losing its substance, Saloum was a tour de force that I enjoyed every minute of.

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SO…

Did I miss any that you think should be on here? Let me know in the comments and talk to us on Twitter to get your voice out there, you know we love to hear from you!

Here’s to another great year of horror ahead!

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