The set up is ingenious: a reclusive writer named Maddie sits alone in her house in the woods. She receives a visit from a neighbor and we realize that she’s both deaf and mute. Maddie discusses her new book with her friend and then they go their separate ways. She retreats inside and tries to work but writer’s block is getting to her. As she’s getting ready to turn in, she sees a man outside. He’s wearing a mask and he’s carrying a knife and crossbow. He watches her carefully and appears to relish the idea of scaring the life out of someone who can’t hear his movements. This’ll be a fun night for him. This is the premise for Mike Flanagan’s Hush, a skillfully made thriller that is neither challenging nor inventive yet nevertheless holds our attention from beginning to end.
I like horror movies that dig deep, that challenge the mind and sear the brain with unforgettable images. But they don’t all have to be that way. I don’t need to eat a five course gourmet meal every night. Sometimes I just want a cheeseburger with a side of fries. That’s Hush. You know exactly what you’re getting, exactly how it will end, and you don’t think about it much afterwards. But while it’s on, it keeps you completely engaged. There’s no filler, no dopey plot twists, no idiotic character choices, no excessive gore, and no overt levels of sadism.
About sadism: a common mistake that many home invasion thrillers make is to put us in the perspective of the killers rather than the victims. I Spit On Your Grave is the most notorious example but it happens in The Strangers too. Those masked killers are presented as badass nightmare figures with supernatural powers and no clear motivations. The movie is far more interested in making them look cool and creepy than in putting us in the mindset of their targets. That ain’t the case with Hush. The killer (well played by The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.) is presented as sort of a regular guy. He’s malicious and dangerous to be sure but also petty and well aware that things could go south for him at any given moment. A key scene in the third act–that I won’t give away–highlights this. During this sequence, he’s as cautious as the heroine, making decisions carefully and waiting patiently for the right moment to strike. This puts him on an equal playing field with Maddie and makes their game of cat and mouse more suspenseful. We know he won’t appear behind her at an impossible moment but we also know that if she makes one wrong move, he’s going to pounce on her without remorse. The stakes are real here and the fact that he’s not an all-powerful, all-knowing monster only serves to amplify them.
Kate Siegel gives an excellent performance as Maddie. The film functions as a bit of a showcase for her. She conceived the idea for the film on a dinner date with her future husband, Mike Flanagan, and the two of them wrote the script together. Both have no illusions about where the concept came from, citing Wait Until Dark as their main inspiration. I’m glad they wear their influences on there sleeves. I’m also amused to know that their writing process involved Flanagan sneaking outside of their home and trying to break in while Siegel stayed inside. That’s my kinda couple. But I also believe that process worked to the film’s benefit. Maddie makes the same decisions we would. She’s aware of the limitations of her home, knows the entrances and exits, and knows when it is and isn’t a good time to try to escape. There was one moment where, in typical horror fan fashion, I got ready to shout at her for making a bad call but then she went ahead and heeded my advice before I could get the words out. She’s a smart protagonist we can firmly root for.
And we are with her every step of the way. Her disability makes us equal parts protective of and in awe of her. There are several well-constructed moments where we want to scream, “HE’S RIGHT OUTSIDE! WHY DON’T YOU HEAR HIM?! Oh, right.” Granted, this is a bit of a gimmick but Flanagan never really treats it as one. Maddie is simply a character who is deaf. She’s not defined by her lack of hearing any more than Audrey Hepburn was defined by her lack of sight. At one point though, it did occur to me that maybe the movie would have been more effective if it had no soundtrack at all, making us as deaf as the protagonist. We’d have had to watch the screen as closely as she watches the windows and look out for shadows around every corner. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that wouldn’t work. That would be a gimmick and a very hard one to stretch out to feature length, which is hard enough with this premise already. Hush does feel a tad long even though it’s only 80 minutes. Flanagan could have trimmed a few things and there’s one unbelievably frustrating moment that should have been cut entirely. If this thing ran at 65 to 70 minutes, he could have had me gasping for air the whole time. At 80 minutes, I have too many chances to catch my breath.
Still, Hush is lean and effective. It’s an improvement over Oculus, Flanagan’s previous film, which suffered from two parallel narratives crashing against each other. A simple, stream-lined approach suits him better. Siegel makes a strong impression as the lead and I hope to see her in many more films. I’m glad Netflix continues to buy up original properties and makes them available for mass consumption (in addition to housing some of the worst films ever, which Carlito covers here) but I can’t help but feel it’s a shame Hush didn’t get a shot at the big screen. This would play like gangbusters with a large audience screaming and cheering right along with you. Oh well. As it is, you can enjoy Hush from your own home and invite a large group of friends over if you want to achieve that effect. It won’t linger in your mind for long and it’s not going to change the face of the genre but it will provide a very entertaining, suspenseful evening. Just make sure to order everyone a cheeseburger.