Monday, April 2, 2007

You Could Learn a Lot From a Dummy

If stupid truly is as stupid does, modern horror rides the short bus.

Sure, there are films out there that at least have their GEDs, but by and large, these days the genre seems more than content to loiter in the tenth grade.

Still, there’s an inherent value in certain kinds of stupidity, the somewhat calculated kind that may be self-aware but is not transcendent, the kind that’s the cinematic equivalent of the really smart kid who could have impressive grades and be on student council but prefers to sit in the back of the room setting guys’ hair on fire; the kind of value that’s only evident when you see a movie like Dead Silence.

Here is an example of the rare Stupid Horror Movie (SHM) that is both cumulative and quantitative in its idiocy and is yet miraculously effective in most if not all ways. One can catalog its numerous affronts to viewer intelligence, but is not compelled to do so unless it is for the purposes of enhancing by way of contrast the sense of irrational, inexplicable satisfaction one gets from such an obviously dumb movie; as if to say with awe, “This movie is utterly retarded and quite enjoyable because of it.” Of course the notion of a man driving vast distances with the ventriloquist doll he suspects may have murdered his wife sitting behind him in the back seat is absurd, but in the case of Dead Silence, that kind of thing is like another grain of sugar on a bowl of Frosted Flakes.

I admit that pleasurable stupidity in horror is a fine line to walk. James Wan and Leigh Whannel, the writer/director duo behind Dead Silence toed this line before in their first film, Saw, with a gravelly, cackling doll on a tricycle and Cary Elwes’ bombastic yelping. And they failed. Oh, Saw was stupid, but only endearingly so to a certain point, after which the film became feeble and lame, an eye-roller. In Dead Silence, though, Wan and Whannel go the absurd distance, their contrived plot yanking the huffing and puffing leading man from one ridiculous set-piece to another, tailed ever-closely by electric razor-toting Donnie Whalberg as the least believable police detective in America. Tongues are severed, dolls come to life, and preposterous climaxes beget preposterous climaxes beget preposterous climaxes in a manner not seen in horror cinema since the Scooby-Doo schenanegans in Happy Birthday to Me.

But at each ludicrous turn, the film also layers on lush cinematography, vibrant, terrifying make-up, and a charmingly juvenile backstory involving a murdered ventriloquist-turned-ghostly doll on decades-old quest for vengeance. Careening along at a spastic pace through a glorious pastiche of "old dark house" movie elements, it becomes something that popular film critics often refer to as an “enjoyable romp.” This isn’t a movie that carelessly, winkingly opens with the old classic Universal logo that adorned decades of horror classics; this is a movie that earns the right to bear that symbol; a relatively safe, surprisingly reserved (at least compared to the indulgent brutality of movies like Saw) spooky ghost movie.

The Sci-Fi Channel only wishes it could come up with something this entertainingly stupid.