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Dead Silence: Freaky Facts About James Wan's Other Creepy Doll Movie

James Wan and Akela Cooper conceptualized the story for "M3GAN," a film about a creepy humanoid doll that breaks bad and becomes as dangerous as the T-1000 from "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." However, this wasn't Wan's first rodeo with evil dolls by any means, as he directed the 2007 film "Dead Silence" from a story conceived by him and his fellow "Saw" collaborator, Leigh Whannell. In this movie, Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) comes home to find his wife mysteriously dead, so he heads out and begins to connect the dots to discover the link between the murder and a long-deceased ventriloquist from his hometown named Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts).

While "Dead Silence" didn't turn into the next big franchise like "Saw" or the other films that Wan has since created, it slowly but surely built up a cult following among horror fans who appreciated it for what it was. Yet, the chances of "Dead Silence 2" ever happening are highly unlikely considering the behind-the-scenes drama that went into the making of the original film. From a stressed-out Whannell being replaced by a script doctor to Wan taking time off from directing after the unsavory experience of this troubled production, let's dive into the history of "Dead Silence" and why everyone should still beware the stare of Mary Shaw.

James Wan says he's always had a love for dolls in horror

Taking a look through James Wan's filmography, it's clear the filmmaker has an affinity for scary dolls in the horror films he takes part in. From the unholy terror of Annabelle in "The Conjuring" Universe to Billy the cycling puppet in the "Saw" series and the dancing AI queen known as M3GAN in the eponymous movie, Wan loves nothing more than to use these items as nightmare fuel. However, "Dead Silence" marked the first time in which a film was dedicated entirely to these little creepers, as Mary Shaw's ventriloquist dummies took center stage and scared the pants off the viewers.

Speaking to Female.com.au, Wan said, "I've always had a fetish for ventriloquist dummies or dolls. I've always been so fascinated by them, like I found them really beautiful but in a creepy, eerie way." In another interview with ComingSoon.net, the filmmaker explained how the infamous clown doll scene for Tobe Hopper's "Poltergeist" terrified him to his core and served as the main inspiration for a similar moment in "Dead Silence." Moral of the story here: Any film with a possessed clown doll will be infinitely scarier than one without.

The film had a much shorter title originally

As with any film, there are many changes from the initial idea to the final product on screen — including the name of the picture. In the case of "Dead Silence," it went through several other iterations before it settled on its final title. According to Dread Central, the film was originally titled "Shhhh..." before changing its name to "Silence." Unfortunately, that had to change because it was the proposed title of Martin Scorsese's passion project, and since he's Martin Scorsese, all others must yield to the icon of cinema and forgo their right to use words from the English dictionary. Ironically, Scorsese's "Silence" would only be released in 2016 and had nothing to do with creepy dolls like James Wan's film.

In a conversation with Dread Central, Leigh Whannell mentioned how "The Doll" was another possible name that was mooted around, while producer Mark Burg suggested "Mary Shaw" to create some synergy with the spooky character from the movie. In the end, everyone went with the name "Dead Silence," which was actually utilized as the temporary title for the test screenings of the film.

James Wan said the failure of Dead Silence led to Insidious

The year 2007 wasn't one to remember for James Wan. He directed two feature films, "Dead Silence" and "Death Sentence," but they didn't light the world on fire, as both struggled to make bank. "Dead Silence" only made $22.4 million from a $20 million budget (via Box Office Mojo), while "Death Sentence" also underperformed with only $17 million from a $20 million budget (via Box Office Mojo). As a result, Wan took time off from directing features, which also put a pin in the chances of him helming a "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" film that he was in conversations for, per Bloody Disgusting.

In 2010, Wan returned with a vengeance as he teamed up with his longtime collaborator, Leigh Whannell, to create the hauntingly horrifying "Insidious," which received a 66% critical approval score on Rotten Tomatoes and made over $100 million at the box office from a tiny $1.5 million budget (via Box Office Mojo).

Discussing "Insidious" with HollywoodChicago.com, Wan explained how he and Whannell's tough experience on "Dead Silence" was valuable in the long run since it taught them a lot of lessons about what they didn't want to do in Hollywood. "That was the key," he said. "We wouldn't have made 'Insidious.' It's all part of growing up. Learning. Experience. With 'Insidious,' I didn't want to phone it through the studio system. It would have been a different film."

Writer Leigh Whannell didn't have the best experience with Dead Silence

In the years after the release of "Dead Silence," both James Wan and Leigh Whannell have been honest about how their time on the film was less than pleasant. In 2011, Whannell posted on his now-deleted personal blog a lengthy piece about "Dead Silence" titled "Dud Silence: The Hellish Experience of Making a Bad Horror Film."

Whannell opened up about how it was he and Wan's representatives who suggested they lock down another film with a studio after the success of "Saw." Whannell, though, didn't have a script written for another film but only a concept. He pitched it to the studio, and it was accepted. He explained how when he sat down to write the script, he realized he only had an idea and not the full picture, but he powered along and delivered a script. However, the studio wasn't happy, and it kickstarted a back-and-forth process that stressed him out and made him cautious about working with big studios.

Eventually, the studio replaced Whannell with a script doctor to get "Dead Silence" to be the story it wanted. "I don't want to go into detail about what parts of the script are mine and what are the script doctor's, but I will say that the Donnie Wahlberg 'shaving' thing was not mine," he wrote. Whannell added that Wan had a horrible time directing the whole affair and the studio did nothing to promote the film before its release.

Mary Shaw's backstory was much different in earlier drafts

With all the studio interference in "Dead Silence," it's likely unsurprising that the plot and characters went through numerous changes from the draft to the final film. The character of Mary Shaw is remembered by fans for being a malevolent force that sought revenge on the town of Raven's Folk for lynching her. However, Mary's backstory in the original script was much different from the final version, making her more of a tragic villain, as detailed by Dread Central.

In the initial drafts, Mary's husband horribly mistreated her and caused her to lose their child. Finding a way to cope with her grief, she turned to her dolls. It was also Mary's husband who cut out her tongue, and not the Ashen family as in the theatrical version of the film. In one version of the script, Mary wasn't lynched by the town but took her own life after having her tongue cut out, then haunted everyone from beyond the grave through the use of her dolls.

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Donnie Wahlberg got cast because of the Saw connection

In the space of two years, Donnie Wahlberg showed up as a detective in two of James Wan's directed films. The first was as Detective Eric Matthews in 2005's "Saw II," then as Detective Jim Lipton in "Dead Silence." Truth be told, Wahlberg has carved out quite a niche for himself by playing cops — most notably on the TV series "Blue Bloods."

Chatting to IGN about the casting of Wahlberg in "Dead Silence," Wan revealed how the two had a positive experience with the "Saw" films and wanted to work together again. "It was a combination of a relationship with Donnie Wahlberg in the past and we were wanting to work with him again and he was wanting to work with me again as a director," he said. "So we said to him, 'Say, Donnie, what about playing a role you've never played before? What about playing a cop?' He was like, 'Okay, cool.'"

Wan revealed how he gave Wahlberg the space and freedom to craft the type of character he wanted to play, which is one of the reasons Detective Lipton had more humor than the traditional film cop trope.

Leigh Whannell didn't want to star in the film

For the first "Saw" film, not only did Leigh Whannell pen the script for it, but he also starred in the movie as the lead character Adam. Considering how well "Saw" performed and the generally positive reaction to Whannell's acting ability, it was expected that he might also write himself into future productions that he and James Wan create. Whannell has shown up as an actor in the films that he and Wan make together, such as the "Insidious" series, but he was notably missing from "Dead Silence."

Speaking to Blackfilm.com, Whannell explained how he never had any plans to star in "Dead Silence" to begin with. He added how he was only focused on the story since it was his first time working with a big studio and he didn't want to worry about which lines should be for him while writing it.

James Wan said Dead Silence was nothing like Chucky

Naturally, whenever someone thinks of a murderous, possessed doll, the first image that comes to mind is the ginger, dungaree-wearing terror known as Chucky from the "Child's Play" franchise. For years, Chucky has ensured that everyone does a double take when walking down the toy aisle — just in case the figure's eyes are moving or there's a knife hidden in the box. When the first promotional material for "Dead Silence" dropped and all the dolls were on display, many observers suggested the film appeared to be inspired by Chucky or "Child's Play." However, James Wan disputed any similarities.

In an interview with ComingSoon.net, Wan said, "I can tell you now, our puppets are not funny. It is not a killer doll film, it's a creepy doll film. Our puppets don't walk around with knives and try to kill you. The entity that tries to kill you is the ghost that lives inside the puppets." The director said the true villain in the film is Mary Shaw, not the puppets that are essentially her vessels.

Leigh Whannell thinks the cult following of the film is fascinating

Whenever the topic of "Dead Silence" is brought up, an old wound is ripped open for Leigh Whannell as he recalls his challenging experience making the film and how it was a rude awakening of the notorious Hollywood machine that's known for chewing and spitting creatives out like they're unflavored bubblegum. That being said, he admitted to Vital Thrills he was surprised to see how a cult following for the film developed. "What has been interesting is to watch this cult of 'Dead Silence' grow in a tiny microscopic corner of the internet," he said. "People are saying, 'This is a great movie,' and it's a very tiny club with members in the double digits, at best, but it is interesting to see it happening."

In another interview with Daily Dead, Whannell revealed it's the fans' positive reception and kind comments about "Dead Silence" that have changed his own attitude towards it. He explained how it may have taken a while for him to come around but he now holds some endearment towards the movie.

Dead Silence is tied as James Wan's lowest-rated film on Rotten Tomatoes

As a filmmaker, James Wan is what many studios deem a sizable return on interest. Whether he's tackling small indie-style productions such as "Saw" and "Insidious" or big blockbusters like "Furious 7" and "Aquaman," he has the ability to turn a production into gold and bring profit to the shareholders. In terms of critical ratings, he has had his fair share of positively and negatively received films. However, "Dead Silence" lays at the bottom of the pile with his other 2007 effort, "Death Sentence."

Both films received a 20% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That said, "Death Sentence" has a slightly higher audience rating of 60% compared to the "Dead Silence" score of 51%. All things considered, though, there are many popular horror films such as "Event Horizon" (31%) and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2" (50%) that hold Rotten scores but have stood the test of time and become favorites among the fans.

Only one of the 101 dolls survived the fire

In "Dead Silence" it's revealed Mary Shaw has 101 dolls — why she needs so many is anyone's guess but let's just go with it — and 100 of them feature in the finale when Jamie Ashen and Detective Lipton burn down the theater and the dolls in the cabinet. As revealed by James Wan on Instagram, the filmmakers actually set the cabinet on fire and burnt the dolls — sans one.

Celebrating the film's 15-year anniversary in 2022, Wan posted a picture of a doll and wrote: "Out of the 101 dolls of Mary Shaw's, this was the only one that survived the fire when we set the cabinet alight. I couldn't bring myself to burn it, so I rescued it from the scene. Now she sits proudly on my shelf."

Considering Wan's time on "Dead Silence" and the crucial Annabelle arc of "The Conjuring," it's an extremely brave move on his part to bring a doll like that into his home. Ed and Lorraine Warren would be tearing their hair out, grabbing their crucifixes, and wondering why he would do something like this in the first place.

The tribute to Edgar Allan Poe in the movie

Whether it's "The Exorcist" inspiration hanging over "The Conjuring" like a Captain Howdy-shaped shadow or the Dario Argento Giallo style of "Malignant," James Wan wears his influences on his sleeve. Expectedly, "Dead Silence" also contained allusions and tributes to many of his interests — notably writer Edgar Allan Poe who became known for his tales of macabre and mayhem in literature.

In an interview with ComingSoon.net, Wan confirmed the town's name Raven's Fair is an on-the-nose homage to the writer's fabled poem "The Raven," while also revealing a few other influences lurking around in the film. "I am not sure if the kids today will care about our loving tribute, but it really is a loving tribute to Edgar Allen Poe, 'The Twilight Zone,' and the old British Hammer horror films which was a big inspiration as well," he said. "Leigh [Whannell] and I always joke that the only thing[s] missing from the film are Christopher Lee and Vincent Price."