Retrospective

15 years ago, James Wan made the most "freaky" underrated thriller of the century

James Wan’s forgotten feature is secretly one of his strongest.

If James Wan knows anything, it’s how to freak his audience out.

If he knows anything else, it’s how to engineer the best freak-outs with a healthy sense of innovation: A zoetrope conspicuously missing its final frames, disembodied hands clapping in a pitch-black stairwell, a silhouetted figure watching TV with the lights off, a corpse rising to its feet after lying in a puddle of blood for two hours.

Wan was born to make horror movies, boasting a filmography where you’ll see Aquaman and Furious 7 peppered among watershed horror flicks like The Conjuring, Saw, and Insidious.

Lost in that catalog is Dead Silence, Wan’s third feature, preceded by the first Saw film and his directorial debut, Stygian, which is unavailable for viewing. Dead Silence occupies horror’s “possessed doll” niche, following the bereaved Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) as he returns to his hometown after his wife’s grisly murder. There, he finds a vengeful spirit after his blood: Mary Shaw. A ventriloquist in life and in death, Mary controls a legion of creepy dolls and kills her victims via amateur glossectomy but only if they scream.

Dead Silence is a gory operatic delight, sitting quietly between Wan’s breakout effort in Saw and Insidious, the second transformative moment of Wan’s career. Unfortunately for the film and for Wan, it neither made an impact on pop culture nor performed adequately in theaters.

Audiences ignored it. Critics loathed it. And now, Inverse is revisiting it, speaking with Dead Silence’s cinematographer John R. Leonetti and star Judith Roberts about working with Wan and the making of this underrated horror thriller.

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The Rise of a Horror Master

There’s a real flashforward gap between Dead Silence’s failure and the release of Insidious, the movie that, in the opinion of cinematographer John R. Leonetti, started Wan towards “becoming the king of horror in his time.”

Leonetti served as Wan’s director of photography on Insidious, Dead Silence, The Conjuring, and Death Sentence, which came out just a few months after Dead Silence. He was the cinematographer on Insidious Chapter 2, and he directed the Conjuring universe’s first spin-off, Annabelle. Apart from Wan himself, there’s no better authority on Wan’s career trajectory.

In fact, Leonetti provided a bridge between Universal Pictures, who distributed Dead Silence and who Leonetti had worked with on movies like The Scorpion King, and Wan, who was fresh off of Saw’s smash success.

Regardless of what you think of its infinite sequels, Wan’s Saw ushered in a new era of horror. Lionsgate Films

“The first Saw was phenomenal, especially for being made for a million bucks,” Leonetti tells Inverse. “But [Universal] wanted to have someone experienced, and also someone that was creatively a fit for his vision.”

When a filmmaker builds clout like Wan’s, they get to write their own ticket. While his most recent outing, the brazenly original Malignant, fared poorly at the box office, the James Wan brand remains synonymous with commercial success. Chalk up the disappointing performance of a film where slashers, martial arts, and the evil imaginary friend trope bonk their heads together to COVID anxiety and audience hesitancy towards movies that lack a connection with pre-existing IP. Wan’s still a known quantity, but 15 years ago, Wan was mostly obscure save for Saw.

“... his own creative force was terrific.”

Leonetti’s credentials go back to the late 1980s and include 12 episodes of Tales From the Crypt, including the Season 4 episode “Strung Along,” which features a killer puppet. Couple that with his Child’s Play 3 credit, and Universal couldn’t have found a better cinematographer to shoot Dead Silence.

Leonetti characterizes Wan as a “big presence,” and Judith Roberts, the veteran actress who plays Mary Shaw, echoes Leonetti’s sentiments. “James has a very special, wonderful way of viewing things,” she says to Inverse, “and I think the way he views gets integrated in all of his films.”

Wan makes his movies the way he wants them, she explains, and even at such an early stage of his career, Dead Silence was no exception.

Judith Roberts as Mary Shaw, after returning from the dead. Universal Pictures

“But he’s a great guy to work with, too,” Roberts adds. “He’s easy. He’s very humane.” Roberts also worked on Death Sentence where, incidentally, she also played a character named Shaw. “I was really impressed with what [Dead Silence] was,” she says, “and his own creative force was terrific.”

Roberts jokes about covering her eyes through Saw’s bloody excesses, but points out that Saw “gave [Wan] the opportunity to make movies, and learn from that, and see what he wanted to do.” Wan made a splash with Saw, grossing $100 million on a $1 million budget, but after Dead Silence the splash became a slosh. A month after premiering in March 2007 it had pulled in a scant $16 million against a $20 million budget, and limped out of theaters soon after.

A Forgotten Chiller

How and why Dead Silence failed to gain traction with Wan’s built-in audience is a puzzle. The film takes a leap forward from Saw in design, narrative, photography, and feel-bad resolutions. It’s innovative and gutsy, leaning into one of horror’s few taboos – the death of children – while capitalizing on the pediophobia everyone suffers while watching creepy doll films.

Still, neither fears nor innovation pay back budgets. Dead Silence flopped. It’s easy to point fingers, but it can be argued that Universal Pictures let down Wan and Leigh Whannell, his screenwriter here and co-writer on Saw, as Dead Silence is a classic case of a studio meddling with unwanted input.

“There was a problem with the movie, but there wasn't a problem with the movie,” says Leonetti, “but because someone thought there was a problem with the movie, they did some rewriting.”

On Leigh Whannell’s old blog, The Word in Stone, he posted “Dud Silence: The Hellish Experience Of Making A Bad Horror Film” in 2011. There, Whannell recounted the consequences of studio overreach on Dead Silence, which muffled the creative force that Roberts praises.

Directors James Wan and Leigh Whannell arrive at a Universal Studios event in 2016.Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

But however much Universal muscled in on his work, Wan kept his grip on the movie’s chilling visual aesthetics. Dead Silence looks like a James Wan movie, textured to the eye and exacting in the details. Roberts and Leonetti experienced its production from different angles, but both call out the same weapons in Dead Silence’s arsenal: The mansion where the climax takes place, and the dolls.

In the film, Shaw was a famous ventriloquist accused of murdering a boy who heckled her; the boy’s family cut out her tongue and hanged her in retribution. Her ghost haunts the town where she was buried with all 101 of her dolls.

“[Wan’s] love of dolls, and how freaky they can be, is evident in the intricacies of the doll designs,” explains Leonetti. Roberts, meanwhile, tuned into Dead Silence’s psychological and Gothic side, embracing Shaw’s pathos as “somebody with a history.” She’s especially fond of the film’s heckling flashback, where no one dies and no scares are orchestrated.

“You could have done a movie alone about her,” she says. “There was material to make her interesting on her own.”

Shaw has lots of dolls, but Billy here takes center stage.Universal Pictures

The fascinating framework of a spurned stage performer consumed by revenge even in death is part of the reason why Shaw is a persuasive movie monster. The other part is Roberts, who uses each minute of her limited screen time to haunting effect, leaving a nightmarish impression with a hypnotic stare or wicked sneer.

But no matter how much Roberts and Leonetti identify the bits and pieces of Dead Silence that meant the most to their respective roles on set, they both come back around to Wan’s vision… and the set directors who executed it.

“God, I tell you, that set direction,” Roberts says. “All the dolls that were created, I could have sat around and just looked at the stuff they did. It was gorgeous.”

Roberts and Leonetti express a similar reverence for the theater, the location of Dead Silence’s climax, where Shaw once delighted patrons and now plots her wrath.

There’s a Gothic feel to the movie’s decrepit theater and homes.Universal Studios

“It was definitely a challenge to create that world,” says Leonetti, “the world of the mansion, the island scenario. It was a pretty big undertaking.” $20 million isn’t much, at least when it comes to making a film. Constructing a haunted abode for Shaw to lurk in was a Herculean job.

The theater is a grimy space built to make audiences fruitlessly scream “Don’t go in there!” at the screen. The Shaw theater looks so dilapidated that it might collapse at any moment, and reads as so disused that the odors of rotting wood and mold nearly waft through the screen.

“What they did in that theater in Canada was really amazing,” says Roberts. “They redecorated so much, they did so much for the end of the film. It was very exciting to be able to see that.”

What we see and what we can’t see comprise Dead Silence’s two faces: A production muddled by Universal’s interference, and a movie that nonetheless reflects its director’s personality. It’s easy to praise a good movie. It’s harder to look past the faults of a flawed one and appreciate its good qualities. But Dead Silence has many, including Roberts herself and Leonetti’s photography, which captures the picture’s gruesome details with granular focus.

Dead Silence planted the seed for the sort of filmmaker Wan would become at the turn of the decade: One with a style equally as deliberate as kinetic, buttressed by an uncompromising fastidiousness woven into every element. While Dead Silence failed as a follow-up to Saw, it succeeded as a fundamental building block to Wan’s development as a storyteller, and as a driving force behind the horror of the 2010s.

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