You don't need to tell me that SAW was a horror phenomenon. The fact that we're about to be subjected to the third sequel in as many years says, if nothing else, that original director/writing team James Wan and Leigh Wannell know how to come up with a seriously great horror concept.
It's the execution that's the problem. I thought as much with SAW, and I'm still thinking it now with their second team-up in the horror genre, the much more classical story DEAD SILENCE. Beautifully shot, exquisite art direction, a concept full of horror potential only to be completely squandered by characters we care nothing for, a dreadful script brimming with cliches, and of course a "you'll-never-see-it-coming" ending that by now has become so common you'll wistfully long for those bygone days when a movie would have an ending, and then actually end.
Short, spoiler-free summary: Jamie (played by appropriately hunky Ryan Kwanten) and his wife are being cute in their kitchen when a mysterious package arrives at their door. They open it to find a really evil-looking ventriloquist dummy, which Jamie's wife proceeds to play with while he goes out for some Chinese. Little does she know that the dummy (the real dummy, not Jamie), is not what it appears, and in a nice sequence that begins with the draining of all ambient noise, Jamie's wife is brutally murdered, her tongue ripped from her mouth and her face left in a sick parody of a doll. Jamie's discovery that the dummy belonged to a murdered ventriloquist named Mary Shaw brings him back to his hometown of Raven's Fall where, together with a cop (played by Donnie Wahlberg) they confront the vengeful ghost of Mary Shaw and her 101 evil dolls as well as the terrible secret that binds the entire town, and Jamie's family to Mary Shaw herself. They just have to be careful not to scream...
Sounds pretty cool, right? In interviews James Wan said his intent was to create a more classic horror story, something Gothic and dreadful without the tons of gore his other film was known for. Shading the entire film in blue with only the color red standing vibrantly out, DEAD SILENCE looks amazing. The set design, especially the rundown theater (aptly titled the Guignol theater) sits out in the middle of a lake surrounded by a towering rock quarry and is suitably awesome. The problem is that no matter how many fancy camera shots cribbed from other directors Wan uses, no matter how many perfectly framed shots he sets up, nothing can hide the fact that we don't care one iota for the main character OR his predicament. Poor Donnie Walhberg suffers a similar fate as the cop who first tries to arrest the dummy (Jamie, not the actual dummy) and then comes over to his side. Walhberg does the best he can with his lines, but shares the same fate allotted to another decent character, Henry the funeral director, who at one point actually says, "Don't go looking for answers...you just might find some."
As usual, the best role in the movie is saved for the villain, and Broadway actress Judith Roberts dives into her role with a relish that belies her years. The absolute best part of the film involves a flashback of one of her performances as a ventriloquist where she is called out by a little boy who shouts, "I can see her lips moving." The scene is both menacing and creepy, and is more terrifying than any of the effect-laden moments that come after. You could make a whole other film out of just this one scene, and it's the scene that I think redeems Wan and Whannell enough to give them at least one more chance to make something that has at much substance as it does style.
If you want to see people get their tongues ripped out, scenes and images inserted into a movie simply because it sounded good on paper (let's dig up all 101 dummies and encase them in a huge wall of glass!!! That makes perfect sense!!), gaps of logic that require a jet pack to cross, and one truly good scene, by all means check out DEAD SILENCE. If you want to see a movie involving a truly terrifying doll or dummy, check out either MAGIC or the scariest damn doll moment I've ever seen in a movie, POLTERGEIST.