Cast: Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valletta, Donnie Wahlberg
Director: James Wan
Producer: Gregg Hoffman
Writer: Leigh Whannell (screenplay), James Wan (story)
Music: Charlie Clouser
Widower Jamie Asher returns to his hometown to investigate the murder of his wife, and suspects the the dead ventriloquist Mary Shaw.
I must have passed up the opportunity to see this movie hundreds of times since my first viewing of it. I don’t remember it being scary, nor any good. But rewatching it changed my mind.
While the film overall wasn’t the most impressive, it had many good moments that made me add it to my Halloween movie list this year.
Hearing the opening theme gave me more of a Resident Evil vibe than a horror film. I think this soundtrack was far too powerful for the antagonist of this movie. The song itself was
phenomenally composed. A creepy theme easy to associate with haunted dolls. Chilling violin trills with the low hum of cellos and bass instruments. A haunting operatic crescendo. A
masterful blend of all the right horror ingredients.
I think the music box plucking fit the eeriness of ventriloquist dolls flawlessly. And I think that piano carrying that theme along played well during suspenseful investigating scenes. The climax of the song, though, was meant for a fight that never happened. Not in the way that the song insinuates it should. The villain in its bravado terrorizing our protagonist who fights back and conquers the evil. Yeah, that never happened. Would have been incredibly effective if it had with this music supporting it.
Great Ideas, Poor Execution
Dummies as conduits.
What a brilliant idea to have the core of our fear be a ventriloquist’s dummy. Dolls have long been a terror to many. To use them as conduits for the dead was like voicing our primitive fear of dolls. In the film, each doll was attached to the spirit of one of Mary Shaw’s victims from the town. And when the dolls came alive, it had such a great purpose.
But the execution of this was less convincing. I think the way it was presented in the movie made it appear as if there were two villains: Mary and the doll. I think we should have seen Mary’s spirit manipulating the doll more. Have Mary’s spirit speak through the doll. They did this at the end when she spoke to Jamie, but I think that should have been bumped up in the movie to show the connection. Having the doll’s mouth move without a visible ventriloquist, that would have been terrifying, and have it had been Mary’s voice.
I think by associating the doll with Mary this way earlier in the film, we would have recognized that wherever the doll was, Mary was as well. We feared the doll because it represented Mary, not just because it was a creepy dummy.
One of my favorite moments in all of horror is when all noise faded out. The clocks stopped ticking, the kettle stopped whistling, the sink stopped dripping, the sound of footsteps
hushed. Everything went silent. This stripped us of our defense of hearing, and as a theme, it would have signaled danger. But they used it so rarely in the film that when it occurred again,
we forgot that it was a theme to begin with.
Use this with the other underplayed theme of the movie, and they could have created tension unlike any horror film we’ve ever seen.
When you scream, Mary Shaw cuts out your tongue and kills you. So take the “don’t scream” theme and mix it with the dead silence, and you have one hell of a suspenseful scene.
Imagine our protagonist being haunted in their room. With their backs turned, they don’t see the dummy in the lap of dead Mary Shaw, but we do and we’re already trying to warn our
protagonist about it. They don’t hear the dummy’s wooden legs clanking together as Mary walks the doll to them. They don’t hear the swish of Mary’s old-fashioned black lace dress. They don’t hear anything in the dead silence except Mary’s voice when she’s right up behind them. They gasp in panic, spin around to see the doll floating in the air. Don’t scream! What tension that single scene could have ensued upon us. So many things James and Leigh could have done with these two themes, especially hand-in-hand. Use the dead silence to induce tension in the audience and then force the character into a terrifying jump scare where screaming is impulsive.
That whole “don’t scream” theme was suspenseful enough. Executed properly, it would have been a bigger hit.
Opening Fright Scene
If we had had more fright scenes like Lisa’s throughout the movie, I think it would have been far more entertaining. The dead silence theme played out well, Lisa’s death was properly
motivated by the Mary Shaw rhyme. And the eeriest encounter of Jamie talking to his dead wife gave me chills in all the right places for a horror film. Even though we knew she was dead, he was carrying on nonchalant conversation with her, and that created a tension I long for in all scary movies.
Ordinary is Scary
We gotta talk about this scene. First off, by the time this scene plays, we have already established the ventriloquist, Mary Shaw, as our villain. So to see her alive and saner while performing ventriloquism was quite unusual. I loved that.
Then she is challenged by a boy in the audience, and because of what we already know about Mary Shaw, tension greater than the verbal dispute in the scene arises in our guts. We subconsciously warn that little boy to shut his trap, but he continues to argue that he can see Mary’s lips moving.
The most golden climax in a horror movie had very little to do with horror and much more to do with great writing and characte development. Because when Mary and her doll Billy start overlapping their voices in a heated argument, Billy demanding to show that arrogant audience boy that he’s real, Mary demanding Billy just continue the show, Billy arguing he can’t ignore the curt child, Mary and Billy become distintly two people. Then Mary Shaw turns slowly to Michael and says, “Who’s the dummy now?”
A truly great scene that gets my blood pumping every time.
Some Saw Moments
As of the release date of this movie, it had only been three years since Wan and Whannell gave us gold with Saw. There were many moments in this movie that mimicked the gore of their first major Hollywood hit.
- Michael the Doll
- The missing boy that Mary Shaw killed after he called her out as a hoax during one of her performances was strung up in her doll factory. In the fashion of a Jigsaw game gone wrong, the boy was stitched together in grizzly fashion and placed in the perfect posture to be a ventriloquist’s dummy.
- Jamie’s Dad’s a Dummy
- I did not expect for the end to be that twisted that the camera pans to the hollowed out back of a human being with a stick shoved where his spinal cord belonged, and a woman’s hand up in his mouth puppeteering his mouth movements. Wasn’t ready for that.
- Lisa’s Death
- When Jamie pulled the blanket off of Lisa, the disfigurement of her face and the missing tongue was far more graphic than I was anticipating. Though I suppose the amount of blood he stepped in foreshadowed something that grim.
- Jamie Knows
- When Jamie finds out who is behind all the murders (his stepmother), they do that climatic Charlie Clouser piano theme and replay all the details we should have been piecing together the whole film.
Most Practical Cop Award Goes to…
Detective Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg)! Witty and realistic is how I love ’em. For the first time I can recall, we had a detective that brought a sense of realism to a paranormal plot. Lipton wasn’t buying any of the supernatural nonsense about a dummy being the murderer. He investigated the case thoroughly and found all the right movements of our protagonist suspicious. Lipton acted tough-terrified when it was due, when reason and training were failing him. But other than that, he was just doing his job.
Jamie was a crappy character, the ghost town setting was too obvious, the themes in the movie were sloppy. But Detective Lipton and his motives in the movie were solid. I think Donnie Wahlberg performed well, and he made the goofs in the movie worth tolerating.
Lipton picks up a doll: “You know, if I see one more of these things…” Throws the doll behind him, taking down a red curtain to reveal all 100 of Mary Shaw’s dolls.
Lipton to Jamie: “If you say I told you so, I’ll shoot you.”
Jamie: “What do you want me to tell you!”
Lipton: “Something less perplexing than a ghost story.”
Confusing Plot Twists
Jamie’s stepmom is Mary Shaw?
Okay, so we knew the doll that Jamie carried around the entire film was the conduit of the ghost of Mary Shaw, even though the doll’s name was Billy and he was apparently his own person. Then the movie ends by revealing something even more bizarre. Not that I could explain how, but Jamie’s stepmom was apparently “the perfect doll” and was simultaneously Mary Shaw.
I think they confused the dolls with the living. In the opening title card, it said that there was a belief spirits of the dead could communicate through the stomach area of the living. This idea was transferred to the dolls throughout the entire film, but then manifests at the very end through Jamie’s stepmom.
Mary Shaw was killing everyone in town that silenced her. That included people outside of Michael’s bloodline, like Henry Walker. But how did it include Jamie who wasn’t even born
yet? He wasn’t there when Mary Shaw was killed, he didn’t participate in any of that, and it seemed unjustified that she should seek his death for a crime he never committed.
While it’s not the worst movie, it’s not the best work of my two favorite Hollywood directors/writers. Leigh Whannell (left); James Wan (right).
With a budget of $20,000,000 and only pulling off $7,842,725 on opening weekend, the movie disappointed. It only grossed a little over twenty-two million worldwide. Not very impressive, but don’t you worry. The boys learned their lesson, and three years later birthed one of our favorite horror films with a new woman in black: Insidious.