Welcome to Playing (Script) Doctor, a new blog category where I try to revamp past disappointments in the film world to bring out their potential. This is a bit of an experiment; if people like this sort of thing, I’ll open it up for commissions (these take a lot of time to make). While most script doctors are brought in to just punch up existing material, I don’t have the same restrictions, so I’ll try to re-build the foundation of the script in a productive manner as well as changing more minor details, and eventually create an outline for what my finished product would be.
Saw was easily the defining horror film of my childhood. Not that I saw it when it came out (I was about eight years old at the time), but I watched its influence spread and its empire of sequels grow larger and larger in real time. I remember being inundated with images of Shawnee Smith with the “reverse bear trap” on her head, of Billy the white-faced red-cheeked puppet, of Cary Elwes in a grimy bathroom considering cutting his foot off. It certainly made an impression on me, even if I’m not a huge fan of it (or its far less well-made sequels), which is more than I can say about a lot of American mid-2000s horror films; it also gave me a lot of respect for director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell and their obvious ambition/talent despite budget constraints.
I say this because I want to make it absolutely clear that I take no schadenfreude in the failure of their second film together, Dead Silence. Wan and Whannell were tasked with producing a second film quickly after the already exhausting endeavor of producing Saw, and they tried to make something good out of a bad situation, but a combination of exhaustion and an uncaring studio inevitably made things take a turn for the worse. Whannell was so disillusioned with the experience of working with a major studio that he wrote a blog post describing the myriad ways in which the experience bit the big one, and while it is incredibly angry and bitter, it clearly comes from a very sincere place of betrayal and hurt. They’re not hacks who didn’t know what they were doing, they’re just living proof that creativity can’t be produced at gunpoint.
That’s why Dead Silence fascinates me so: it had a lot of potential to be a pretty good horror movie. Maybe not exactly a classic, but definitely an interesting little throwback item for fans of Mario Bava or The Twilight Zone (which Wan and Whannell described as their biggest influences). Instead, the film we got is compromised by both fatigue and personal interference in ways that make the things about the movie that could have been interesting, like a feature-length optical illusion. I chose Dead Silence for this column for exactly that reason, not because it’s exceptionally bad. If I wanted to do that, I’d be talking about some Eli Roth hackjob. So without further ado, let’s get down to brass tacks about how to fix this thing.
The Villain Problem
The Problem: There have been many arguably iconic horror beasties and baddies in recent years, such as It Follows’ “It,” The Babadook’s titular monster and even Wan and Whannell’s own creation Jigsaw. All of these have imagery and personality traits that can be easily ascribed to them that make them memorable and scary. But if you say the name “Mary Shaw,” you’re probably going to be met with either a) looks of confusion or b) eye rolls of derision.
Mary Shaw, the central villain of Dead Silence, is a ventriloquist who lived with 101 dummies that she referred to as her “children” and was killed by an angry mob of townsfolk after she murdered a little boy who heckled her. Now, she’s a ghost who can silence all ambient noise in an area and kills you by cutting your tongue out if she can jump-scare you into screaming, and her goal is to kill every descendant of the people that killed her. When you actually write it out, it sounds like a bit of a mishmash of broad “ooh creepy” tropes (dummies, tongue-related trauma, children being involved), but it’s familiar and therefore not scary because it specifically culls too much inspiration from one source. For as much as Wan and Whannell have name-dropped Italian and British horror films as inspiration for this movie, Dead Silence most resembles a cut-rate Nightmare on Elm Street. Both Freddy Krueger and Mary Shaw are child-killers who were themselves killed by vigilante justice that now seek out revenge for their deaths, and use some kind of supernatural gimmick to destroy their targets (killing in their dreams for Freddy, using silence as a weapon for Mary). They even both have creepy nursery rhymes dedicated to them and come back for their victims in a cruel twist ending, so the similarities are such that it inspires a little suspicion on our part as to whether or not Whannell simply gave up while forcing himself to push out a script and just took a beloved slasher classic and revised a few beats from it, and while you’re thinking about how familiar this all is, it’s hard to be scared by it.
Of course, taking inspiration from things that have come before isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and if you’re going to borrow that blatantly, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a pretty great film to pull from. Where things run into trouble is that Mary Shaw doesn’t have anything to make her distinctive either visually or personality-wise. Freddy Krueger has his sick sense of humor, his razor-blade glove, his striped sweater, and of course the fact that he’s a physical manifestation of the ways we neglect and fail to protect children. Mary Shaw, on the other hand, isn’t really a force of personality. The reason for why she murdered the boy that heckled her is just perplexing; he didn’t ruin her lucrative career (in fact, she wins back the crowd immediately after the heckling by putting on a show of amazing ventriloquism skill), nor did he make her unhinged via a moment of public self-doubt. It mostly just seems like she killed him because she can’t take criticism, and “petty” isn’t really a great main characteristic for your villain to have when you aren’t going for camp.
She later brings up that she’s killing people to “silence those who silenced her,” and I have to ask…who is she talking about? The heckling child? He didn’t silence her, she could have kept her career if she hadn’t, y’know, done a murder. The vigilante mob? That’s a better choice, but I think they were pretty justified in killing her, since she was the only one who had opportunity and motive, and even if the mob members themselves didn’t know for sure that she killed him, the audience does, because we later see the child’s corpse, which she’s turned into a puppet. That’s not really “silencing” so much as a fairly understandable (though maybe not condonable) reaction. Mary referring to that as “silencing” her mostly makes her sound like an Internet troll who’s whining about their comment about how awesome Hitler was being deleted and how that’s a violation of their Freeze Peach.
Also, Mary Shaw looks like this…
…which is pretty weak as far as attempting to make your supposedly iconic villain look memorable. The reason for those two not-very-distinctive lines on the sides of her mouth is that she asked in her will to be made into a “human doll,” but nothing else about her is really that doll-like: her eyes have that generic low-budget movie monster-y glow and her movements don’t really recall puppets in any way. There’s only really one thing that makes her stand out from Creepy Old Lady Ghost #4876, and that’s relegated to the film’s unrated cut: her tongue is apparently made of the cut-out tongues of her victims stitched together to make one long bloody mega-tongue, which is how she can use other people’s voices to trick potential victims.
I know I’m trying to be somewhat positive with this, but that detail is really stupid. So, let’s move on to how to fix Mary Shaw’s character.
How To Fix It: To me, the most interesting thing about Mary Shaw is what the “silencing those who silence me” line can imply. With a little tweaking (okay, a lot of tweaking), it could have carried some pretty potent feminist subtext.
Instead of having Mary depicted as some craaaaazy old bat who’s so thin-skinned the slightest bit of criticism will drive her to murder, we can keep the “takes performing seriously” aspect but channel it into her being outwardly flinty and a shut-in when she’s not out performing, but make her kind to children and pretty much nobody else. Make her like a female Roald Dahl, minus the anti-Semitism. She’ll still be a witch (or at the very least magical in some way), but we’ll remove the petty “let’s turn people into puppets” aspects of her character and make her a nice witch instead.
Obviously, these changes mean we need a new villain. The one I came up with is a wealthy, respected patriarch of a local family, who’s also a ventriloquist, but a terrible one, so Mary continually overshadows him and even takes shots at him in her act. In retribution, he murders a little girl and frames Mary for it by stealing one of her dolls and placing it at the scene of the crime. Spearheading an angry mob of townsfolk, he kills Mary by cutting her eyes out and throwing her down a well, causing her to bite her tongue off and break her jaw. Mary attempts to come back as a ghost to get her revenge via magic she used to place a part of her soul in each of her puppets, but the male ventriloquist uses a magical ring of Mary’s that she used to enhance her magic to enslave Mary’s grotesque ghost and use it for his own ends. This way, the endgame isn’t just defeating our main bad guy but freeing Mary from her bonds by destroying the ring (which is passed down through the men in the villain’s family) before the villain can destroy all of Mary’s dolls (the one form she has control in) so she can have her satisfying revenge, but we can still keep the supernatural angle and the gimmick. The present-day villain and owner of the ring can be named Theodore, but everyone calls him “Teddy” because he looks all cute and unassuming and nobody would ever think he’s a murderer because he’s an attractive rich straight white man, and a Nice Guy. Social commentary!
Speaking of the gimmick, I’d also like to change some of the rules regarding how Mary’s powers work. In the film, she can only kill people if she jump scares them into screaming, which is kind of weak, especially considering how lame and lazy the actual jump scares are. Now that she’s blind, her ability to detect victims could be based on sound, rather than a scream being the kill trigger, making opportunities for some Wait Until Dark-style cat-and-mouse chases. It’s also established in the film that Mary can use the voices of people she’s killed to trick people into following her, but this is never used in any really meaningful, frightening way, because whenever she uses the power, we’ve already seen her kill the person in question first. A good way to fix this would be to make her able to use the voices of anyone her dolls have been in proximity to, so that the audience is never sure if someone talking just off-screen is alive or dead, keeping them on their toes.
The creepy nursery rhyme that recurs throughout isn’t really effective, either; it’d be best to just drop it. Or, if you’re really married to the concept, here’s the beginnings of a grimdark version of “Miss Mary Mack” you can use, because at least it’d be memorable.
Miss Mary Shaw, Shaw, Shaw,
With her broken jaw, jaw, jaw,
The ugliest witch, witch, witch,
You ever saw, saw, saw
She lived with dolls, dolls, dolls,
In the theater walls, walls, walls,
If you went in, in, in,
They’d never hear your calls, calls, calls
So don’t you scream, scream, scream,
And don’t you cry, cry, cry,
Or she’ll take your tongue, tongue, tongue,
And you will die, die, die.
So, About That Incredibly Weak Lead
As I previously mentioned, Mary Shaw had some promise as a villain, but it was undone by some pretty lame rules for how her powers worked and a clunky motive. I can’t really say the same for Dead Silence’s incredibly boring protagonist, Jamie. Usually, horror movies are scary when there’s a character that is likable and motivated being menaced or at least makes interesting choices as things descend into madness (i.e. Chris in Get Out for the former, Amelia in The Babadook and Thomasin in The Witch for the latter). Jamie, on the other hand…I guess he’s motivated by his wife’s death, but he just isn’t interesting at all in his own right. They try to give him a dry sense of humor in a few early scenes, but 1) none of his jokes are really funny and 2) it completely goes away after the first 20 minutes. He has some baggage with his emotionally abusive father, but he mostly just deals with that and his dead wife by being distant from everything and vaguely pissy, and when you consider that none of the scenes with him talking to his father actually meant anything because his father was one of Mary’s puppets the whole time (yeah, really), there was pretty much no dramatic arc for his character. So how do you fix that?
How to Fix It: Obviously, you erase and start over. Meet Georgina! She’s a museum curator for the quaint New England town where Mary Shaw was framed and killed. She’s organizing a true-crime exhibit about the Shaw murder, which involves the dolls in a display case, and she’s the first to notice that the dolls go missing whenever there’s a murder (due to Mary possessing a doll to try and escape and get help). She thinks there’s something fishy about the murder of the little girl that Mary was framed for, as well as the fact that the new murder victims are those with ties to Mary Shaw or looking into her death, but due to her shy, introverted nature and the pervasive sexism of her work environment (she wants to take responsibility for some larger upcoming projects and present original research for the Mary Shaw exhibit, but Theodore stonewalls her and subtly puts her down with paternalistic crap), she tries to keep her suspicions quiet until she uncovers a wealth of clues about the decades-old murder case that prove Mary’s innocence. She may be full of self-doubt incurred by a hostile work environment and having to overcome a lot of judgment due to her widely disliked mother having her out of wedlock, but she’s got spunk. Theodore hates spunk.
With these changes, Dead Silence isn’t a boring story about a boring guy who’s trying to boringly prove his innocence that the audience is already aware of to a boring cop (we’ll deal with that storyline later), but about a smart, capable woman overcoming her own internalized misogyny and freeing a falsely accused woman from eternal damnation and enslavement at the hands of a guy who can get away with anything because of his white male privilege. Huh, it’s almost like adding social commentary via character development to your horror movie isn’t just a gimmick, and actually makes it stronger, more relatable and frightening!
Nah, that’s stupid. OOGA BOOGA SCARY PUPPETS.
Location, Location, Location; or, Appearance Really Is Everything
Leigh Whannell has mentioned multiple times in interviews or blog posts that he intended for Dead Silence to be a homage to the campy Hammer Horror films of the ‘60s, the “Talky Tina” episode of The Twilight Zone, and the films of Italian horror director Mario Bava. That’s a really nice thought, as it shows he really put a lot of thought into what he wanted the film to eventually look like, and in an age where most mainstream horror goes back to the same wells over and over, it’s nice to see someone at least demonstrate that they know who Mario Bava is. The problem, however, is that Mario Bava makes movies that look like this…
but Dead Silence looks like this.
It’s not just the fact that the look of the film is very dull and drab and conventional, how it uses its settings is to its detriment as well. There are a few neat locations in the film, such as Jamie’s father’s home, with its spiral staircase and foreboding gate, and the crumbling Guignol Theatre (I see what you did there, guys), but the film never lingers in any of them for very long and when it does, it hardly uses the creepy designs to its advantage. Additionally, the city-bound prologue and the distractingly modern morgue and motel that the characters spend far too much time in are pretty devoid of personality and detract from the old-school vibe the film clearly wants to go for.
How to Fix It: Normally, this sort of thing isn’t a script issue, and usually needs to be taken up with the director or cinematographer. While that is partly true here, there are some decent-looking shots that achieve what the film was going for, and I don’t think Wan’s direction or John Leonetti’s cinematography is the root of the issue here, because they’ve produced much better work together on Insidious and Death Sentence. The root problem is that the script has no real sequences that make use of the cool Gothic architecture or offer chances for interesting visuals otherwise.
There isn’t really one perfect way to fix this, but the best one I can think of involves making the film somewhat vaguely a period piece and changing the setting up a bit. The film doesn’t explicitly state where Ravens Fair (the town where Mary Shaw lived and Jamie grew up) is located, but various sources place it near Ottawa in Ontario or upstate New York near Niagara Falls. Personally, I think more of an ocean-adjacent New England location would work better, as you’re more likely to have some interesting old architecture to play around with there and fewer bland woodland areas, as well as some creepy coastal fog. As for the time period, late ‘60s/early ‘70s would be ideal considering the “you’ve come a long way, baby” workplace gender issues at play and Whannell’s influences, but if you’d rather avoid that sort of thing, you could always take inspiration from Anna Biller’s brilliant The Love Witch and just set it in a cinematic world that recalls the stylistic affectations of the time period you’re going for while never really indicating when it’s set.
Here’s a couple ideas for scary sequences that this new iteration of the script could capitalize on:
- Two characters investigate Mary Shaw’s old home in the theater, and are separated. One thinks they hear the other calling to them, but when they arrive, they only see the person staring at the wall. Surprise, they’re dead, Mary’s been using their voice. Mary appears when whoever found the body screams and either chases or kills the other character, depending on how plot-important they are.
- Georgina hears some children singing the Mary Shaw nursery rhyme while working late in the old museum, and follows the sound to its source, only finding two dolls out of the case. She goes to put the dolls back, and places one in the case but realizes the other has gone missing. She hears someone writing on a chalkboard somewhere, and enters a storage room to see the missing doll next to a spare chalkboard, with “SAVE THEM” written near-illegibly on it. The doll suddenly falls off a stool and its head cracks open. The only light bulb in the room breaks, and Georgina is menaced by an unseen presence before escaping.
Obviously, there are more ways that the script could be improved (replacing the cop subplot and the dad subplot with some more likable secondary characters, making the dialogue less continually expository), but the three things above are probably the best start for making Dead Silence into the solid retro throwback its creators intended for it to be instead of the compromised product we got. I know this is all pure fantasy thinking on my part, and the chances of a movie like the one I’ve described actually getting made are virtually nil, but the reason I do this isn’t to try and one-up Wan and Whannell, but to somehow right the wrongs done to them by their difficult circumstances.
[I’ll post a rough outline soon as a part 2 for this piece. Stay tuned!]