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Remembering James Wan's Creepy Doll Movie Dead Silence

James Wan's second feature as a director is a road map to his later successes.

By Matthew Jackson

Next year marks two decades since James Wan and Leigh Whannell changed the horror game with Saw, a film that helped to define the style of 21st century horror cinema, and put both men on the map as genre creators with bright futures ahead. Wan and Wannell have since remained major players in the horror game, ranking among the most important filmmakers working in the genre right now, and while Saw remains their demented calling card, it's not the only important film to come out of their early years.

Why it's time to revisit 2007's Dead Silence

Three years after Saw was a smash hit for both of them, spawning two sequels in the interim, Wan and Whannell reteamed for something different, a film that paid homage to classic chillers of the past while also working within the gritty aesthetic they helped push forward in the early 2000s. It wasn't as warmly received, and it's not as important in the grand scheme of horror cinema, but more than 15 years later, the haunted doll feature Dead Silence remains a very important film in the careers of both men, as well as a satisfying little thrill ride. But you don't have to take my word for it: The film is now streaming on Peacock, along with a host of other new Halloween offerings from the streamer, so you can go see for yourself.

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Taking its cues from classic ghost stories and cursed object cinema, Dead Silence follows Jamie (Ryan Kwanten), a man from a small town haunted by an old puppeteer who got famous for making, and speaking through, a series of dolls, before her ambitions turned darker and the town decided to shut her up forever. It's been years, but the ghost of Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) still hangs heavy over the time, and the lives of the people who grew up there. When we meet Jamie, he thinks he's escaped all that, but he's quickly proven wrong when one of Mary's long-lost puppets, Billy, shows up at his apartment and kills his wife. Facing a cop (Donnie Wahlberg) who doesn't believe his story, and a mystery he'll have to journey home to solve, Jamie has no choice but to go back home and get to the bottom of Mary Shaw's curse once and for all. 

Unlike Saw, with its twisty plotting and down-to-Earth grimness, Dead Silence emerges as a supernatural chiller in the classic sense of the word, a film that sets up a creepy threat, presents a problem for the protagonist to solve, then follows him as he tries to solve it. Its runtime is less than 90 minutes, its cast is relatively sparse, and its scares are both frequent and built on horror tropes we all recognize. After all, who hasn't been creeped out by a doll at some point or another?

In terms of plot, Dead Silence can at times be predictable, and at other times feel just a tad incomplete compared to Saw's tight-as-a-drum narrative structure, but that's not why we come to this movie. No, Dead Silence is a showcase of a different horror skillset, something both Wan and Whannell have proven time and again that they have in spades. This is an atmosphere movie, replacing the dingy tiles and fluorescent glares of Saw's world with the dramatic, Gothic flourishes of crumbling old theaters and old tourist towns past their prime. 

A clown doll with creepy hands clawing its eyes.

Even when the film is dragging a little in the narrative department, you can be positively swept away by the nightmarish landscapes Wan and Whannell have dreamed up here. Mary Shaw's lair, when we finally get to it, feels like a haunted attraction you could wander through for hours, rich with detail and vintage eeriness. The town surrounding her, from the stone-walled funeral home to the graveyard where she was supposedly laid to rest forever, is just as rich with detail and atmosphere, the kind of place you'd love to spend an October day even if you wanted to be absolutely sure you got out again by nightfall. Then there's Mary Shaw herself, a woman in black with horrifying features destined to haunt your dreams. Just don't scream when you see her, or... well, if you've watched the movie, you get it.

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Dead Silence has not had the lasting impact of Saw, but we can still feel the ripples of its influence in the careers of both Whannell and Wan. Look at Malignant, with its towering hidden hospitals and creaky old homes, or The Invisible Man with its cliffside mansion and haunting attic. In both of those films, and in others, these filmmakers have revealed that they're just as interested in the slightly unrealistic Gothic heights of classic horror as they are in the visceral thrills of the modern, and that all has its roots in Dead Silence. So, if you're looking for a pleasantly creepy flick to add to your Halloween watchlist, go drop it in your Peacock queue, and get ready to see haunted puppets around every corner.

Dead Silence is now streaming on Peacock.