Dead Silence

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“Dead Silence” is a throwback to the matinee thrillers of yesteryear, right down to the outmoded Universal Pictures logo at the beginning. It’s set in the present, but characters use record players and old-timey cameras, and the premise is pure ’50s cheese: a malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy brings evil into a young couple’s life.

What’s impressive about the film is that it’s actually pretty spooky, regardless of how stupid that premise sounds. I went in expecting a howler and found myself genuinely rattled by some of the silent, dread-filled suspense scenes, once I had accepted the retro “Twilight Zone” plot. The fact that it comes from director James Wan and co-writer Leigh Wannell — the duo behind the gory, profane, torturous “Saw” — yet has no swearing, nudity, or serious onscreen violence is more surprising still.

You and I know that if a ventriloquist’s dummy is delivered under mysterious circumstances to our apartment, it is surely a thing of evil and should be burned in the nearest fire. But Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) and Lisa (Laura Regan) do not realize that until it is too late and Lisa is dead. At that point, Jamie returns to their hometown, Ravens Fair, now depressed and abandoned but once a thriving community in which a creepy stage ventriloquist named Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts, seen in flashbacks) regaled townsfolk with dummy-based entertainment before being suspiciously killed in 1941. Her death gave rise to local legends, and Jamie suspects the new dummy in his life might be connected to all that.

Jamie’s wealthy, estranged old father (Bob Gunton), now a stroke-addled invalid with a hot trophy wife (Amber Valletta), won’t talk about the town’s past, but the elderly mortician (Michael Fairman) with the insane, babbling wife (Joan Heney) is more than happy to. Jamie gets caught up on the local lore while dodging inquiries from Det. Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), the wise-cracking cop who suspects Jamie in Lisa’s death and whose old-school patter is further evidence of the film’s pre-modern inspirations.

This is essentially a ghost story, and Wan shoots it with a mix of steel-gray atmosphere and goose-bumpy glee, like a Boy Scout with a really good cinematographer spinning a yarn at a campfire. There’s a gorgeous creepiness to the proceedings, and Wan is smart to treat his subject matter with grave seriousness rather than winking irony. The closest he gets to an inside joke is having Ravens Fair’s old theater called the Guignol, after Paris’ legendary shock-theater playhouse.

That all-kidding-aside attitude means that even when the movie reveals the most outrageous, laughable, ridiculous twist ending I’ve ever seen, Wan is still being serious. Surely he and Wannell know how ludicrous it is, but surely they don’t care: This is a movie about an evil puppet, remember? Plausibility was removed from the negotiations long ago.

The film is not without its genuinely illogical elements, like why Det. Lipton considers the dummy “evidence” if he’s convinced the dummy had nothing to do with Lisa’s murder, but it’s refreshingly free of extraneous characters or subplots. A straightforward, chilly ghost story like this is rare, and this one is good enough for a few scares and a few laughs.

B- (1 hr., 29 min.; R, a few brief gruesome images; could have been a strong PG-13.)

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