You know what’s really creepy? Ventriloquist dummies.
Seriously, look at this little bastard:
There’s no way that thing hasn’t killed a child.
I hate those things with a fiery passion. As a child, I was shown Bride of Chucky at a waaaay too early age by a nefarious cousin, and it messed me up pretty bad, sparking a decade-long fear of anything remotely in the neighborhood of ‘killer dolls.’ This included a one-man war against my mother’s vintage Cabbage Patch doll collection, which I was convinced was out to get me. And while I eventually grew to love that little red-haired psychopath from Child’s Play, I never was never quite able to fully shake my suspicion of his voice-throwing counterparts.
There’s just something so unnerving about them. From their glossy, lifeless eyes to their overdone, mortician-styled make-up, they fire off primal warning signals in my brain for reasons I’ve never really been able to fully articulate. It doesn’t help that the entire art of ventriloquism is built around the concept of making the little wooden monsters look as alive as possible.
I blame Goosebumps, mostly.
To this day, I still don’t entirely trust them. I’ve been tempted, perusing through the dusty aisles of countless antique stores, to purchase one many times over the years, but have never been able to convince myself that it was completely safe. I’ve got all kinds of supposedly cursed memorabilia (being the horror fanatic that I am), from Ouija boards to voodoo dolls, but I can’t seem to get over my aversion to dummies. Stupid, I know, but I refuse to have one of those things in my house.
I wouldn’t say I’m scared of them, per se, at least not anymore. Just distrustful. I can be around them with no problem, thanks largely to two pieces of media. The first is the work of comedian Jeff Dunham.
Jeff Dunham is living proof that Satan exists, because there’s no other explanation for how a person can make millions of dollars with ventriloquism other than through some kind of Faustian deal with the devil. But he’s partially responsible for helping me overcome my intense fear of all things dummy-related, because if those puppets can continue hearing his shitty comedy for years on end without violently murdering him, then they can’t be that dangerous.
The other thing that helped me see ventriloquist dummies as relatively harmless (if not unsettling) performance props is the 2007 horror film Dead Silence. For those of you who haven’t seen it (you sweet, innocent children), Dead Silence is one of the most fantastically stupid horror movies ever made. It’s amazing.
From the minds of James Wan and Leigh Whannell, at the time riding high on the ridiculous success of their hit Saw franchise, Dead Silence is miraculous simply by virtue of not killing their careers before they ever really began in earnest. James Wan is a master of modern horror, bringing us the likes of The Conjuring, Insidious, and my favorite film of the decade, Malignant. Yet, if this movie was any indication, he had some rough edges to work out before he made it to where he is today.
Granted, he also worked on the Fast and Furious franchise and Aquaman, so maybe he’s just selectively terrible.
Dead Silence, as you’ve no doubt been able to piece together, is a movie about killer ventriloquist dolls. At least, that’s what it advertised itself to be. I remember seeing the trailers on TV, as a terrified little 11 year-old, and thought there was no way in hell that I was ever going to be seeing this movie. Even the music video for some terrible mid-2000s punk-pop song that made its rounds on Fuse and MTV, which featured footage from the film, frightened me to my core. The dead-eyed, sinister stare of the doll on the movie poster was effectively my kryptonite that year. It wasn’t until a few years later, when my blossoming interest in horror led me to start catching a few scattered flicks here and there on cable, that I would finally confront my fear and give Dead Silence a go.
And let me tell you, I don’t think any human being in history has overcome a childhood fear as quickly as I did that day, because Dead Silence is stupid beyond the capacity to inspire fear.
For starters, this movie has Donnie Wahlberg in it. So, you know, good luck taking anything seriously.
Secondly, it’s not really about killer ventriloquist dolls. It’s actually about a killer ventriloquist. Well, the ghost of one, anyway. See, the villain of this little piece of schlock cinema is Mary Shaw, ventriloquist and puppeteer extraordinaire from yesteryear. Nearly a century ago, when TV didn’t exist so people had no idea what real entertainment was, Mary Shaw was the star performer in Raven’s Fair, a tiny town where the sun apparently never shines. One night, a young boy in the audience had the audacity to heckle Ms. Shaw, so naturally, she kidnapped and brutally murdered him.
Which, honestly, I respect.
The town of Raven’s Fair doesn’t take too kindly to this, despite the fact that the kid was clearly a dick, and essentially lynch Mary Shaw, cutting out her tongue while she screams and burning her alive. Mary, presumably per her will, wanted to be turned into a doll and buried with her collection of 101 dummies. The town, bizarrely, instead of saying ‘screw that’ and chucking her into an unmarked hole in the ground, actually obliges with her requests.
Years later, our emo-haired protagonist, Jaime, finds his pregnant wife brutally murdered after receiving a mysterious doll in the mail. This leads him to return to Raven’s Fair, where he seeks to uncover the secret behind Mary Shaw’s curse, and his family’s part in the story.
It’s a ridiculous premise, in an almost endearingly ambitious way. Although the movie is a jumbled mess, led by uninspired performances and a nonsensical plot, it’s just crazy and stupid enough to be thoroughly entertaining. The movie establishes a series of internal rules about how its lore works, and how Mary Shaw can kill (and who she targets), and then seems to abandon and ignore every single one of these guidelines in favor of just doing the most insane thing possible for every scene. It almost feels intentional, made to be as unflinchingly absurd as it could be just to see what audiences would tolerate.
Everything is shot in either pitch-black darkness or a Twilight-style blue filter that makes everything else look like it’s underwater. All of the dialogue is either whispered confusion from characters that are as lost as the audience is or screaming nonsense from characters who, tragically, get to die before seeing where this beautiful trainwreck ends.
And believe me when I say that the ending to this movie is magnificent. When people were shocked at the ludicrous stuff Wan pulled off in Malignant’s third act, I knew that none of them had seen Dead Silence, because he set the stage for that exact kind of thing years ago. Go see this movie right now, and then come back once you have because there be spoilers below.
You’ve been warned.
Did you see it?
What the hell was that?
So, for those of you who didn’t see it, and who don’t care about being spoiled here’s the twist: The main character’s wheelchair-bound dad, who’s been sort of advising him this whole time on Shaw and their family history, has been a puppet this whole time. His much, much younger wife, Jaime’s umpteenth stepmom, has secretly been possessed by Mary Shaw (and is implied to be the ‘prefect doll’ that her notes earlier in the film had mention) and had carved out the innards of Jaime’s dad and made him into a goddamn dummy. It’s so batshit insane that it honestly makes up for every single one of the film’s other faults.
It’s such a wild, out-of-left field ending that it single-handedly ruined the image of ventriloquist dummies for me. If they’re actually as evil as they look, and that’s the kind of crazy-ass mischief they get up to, then by all means, let them be evil. Turning the elderly into puppets? That’s a sick plan, in all senses of the word, and I wholeheartedly endorse those kinds of preposterous shenanigans.
Besides, if anything, Dead Silence proves that the real thing you need to be afraid of is the ventriloquists themselves. Honestly, anyone who chooses that as a career path needs to be on a government watchlist, because they’re clearly insane. Jeff Dunham has a basement full of bodies, mark my words.
Anyway, go watch Dead Silence, especially if you feel like indulging in your recreational drug of choice. Because I can only imagine that enhances the experience dramatically.
What’s your favorite dumb horror movie? Let me know in the comments!