This Giallo-Esque Chiller Is James Wan’s Most Underrated Film

James Wan
DEATH SENTENCE, director James Wan, on set, 2007. TM and Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved/courtesy Everett Collection

Dead Silence was a commercial and critical failure upon release in 2007. The picture made slightly more than $22 million at the global box office against a budget of $20 million. Moreover, it sits at an abysmal 21% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. With numbers like that, it would be easy to write this film off as a misstep from dynamic duo James Wan and Leigh Whannell. But I don’t think Whannell and Wan necessarily got it wrong here.

I think Dead Silence was misunderstood by the moviegoing public and by critics who didn’t connect with the film or its influences. That’s fine. Art is subjective. But just because a feature doesn’t land for most doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t merit to the piece. In fact, I would argue that Dead Silence is James Wan’s most underrated film; a picture that delivers atmospheric chills, gorgeous camerawork, and some supremely effective jump scares. 

Dead Silence catches up with Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) shortly before a ventriloquist dummy shows up on his doorstep. Mere moments after that, his wife, Lisa (Laura Regan), is murdered, pulling Jamie into a harrowing ordeal that takes him back to the eerie town where he grew up. Once he arrives back home, Jamie begins to suspect there’s a connection between a local ventriloquist and Lisa’s untimely demise. 

Also Read: Justice for Mary Shaw: A 15-Year Retrospective

There are many facets of Dead Silence that I think work well. The cinematography and editing are high on that list. The sequence following Lisa’s death where we see the proceedings reflected through Jamie’s retina is so effectively rendered. The sadness in his eyes conveys so much. And the visual presentation is top-notch. Additionally, the wide shots of Jamie leaving town on his journey back home are beautifully framed.  

Also noteworthy on the stylistic end is the use of bright red against a darker, washed-out palette that really makes the color pop off the screen. The reds here are foreboding, seemingly warning of the unspeakable evils to come. Additionally, the emphasis on that particular shade appears to pay homage to Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s signature color. Both Suspiria and Deep Red feature that hue prominently. 

The nods to Italian horror are a nice touch, especially as this film leans into the fantastical and the inexplicable in a similar fashion to Bava and Argento in their respective heydays. Like the Italian murder mysteries of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Dead Silence is totally unhinged, placing style over substance at every opportunity.  

Also Read:

Gothic horror also seems to be a major influence on the film’s aesthetic. Jamie’s familial estate almost looks like it could have come from a Jean Rollin film. And the theater where Mary Shaw used to perform has a similar quality about it. 

The film is also helped along by great sound design. Sound design isn’t brought up as much as I’d like in film criticism but it’s so important. The Strangers wouldn’t be the celebrated classic it is without the aid of sound design that puts the viewer in the heart of the action. And I have similar feelings about Dead Silence. Elements like the buzzing neon sign in Jamie’s motel room and the dripping faucet immerse the viewer in the narrative. Additionally, those flourishes serve to render the viewer ill at ease. Not on a conscious level, necessarily, but cacophonous sounds contribute to a baseline of anxiety that is then augmented by various other methods of tension-building. 

None of the above would necessarily matter if the film wasn’t scary, though. But it is. The menacing nature of the picture’s jump scares ensures that. Wan has demonstrated over and over again that he understands how to tease out a scare and render the audience especially vulnerable before he finally pulls the rug out from under them. He does that here several times with outstanding results. 

Also Read:

For everything the film gets right, I will acknowledge that there are some issues. I know the flick succumbed to a fair amount of studio meddling, which kept the story from taking the exact shape Wan and Whannell intended. Part of me also wonders if the film is simply too far out there for some. As someone who loves a giallo-esque chiller that favors style over substance, I dig some of the weirder aspects of Dead Silence. But that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps many of the themes and references were lost on some and unappreciated by others. But for me, Dead Silence is a solid cinematic effort. 

All things considered, Dead Silence is far better than its reputation would suggest. James Wan and Leigh Whannell deliver an experience that is beautiful to look at and terrifying to watch. Despite that, this feature remains criminally underrated. If you’ve written the film off, I would encourage you to give it a second chance. You may just find that it’s far better than you remember. 



Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter