Horror movies often live and die by their gimmicks. Be it Psycho’s insistence that no patron be admitted to the theater after the film had started or Unfriended’s desktop perspective, the concept of “high concept” finds no more welcoming home than the horror genre. Hush, featuring a secluded deaf-mute protagonist, is no different.
Acquired by Netflix after a premiere at SXSW, Mike Flanagan’s film is a model of modern horror propagated by Blumhouse Productions: small-scale, small-cast, just different enough to stand out. A home invasion isn’t that interesting, but what if it was during a “Purge” or what if the homeowner couldn’t hear, let alone cry out for help? If I sound disparaging, it’s not because of the finished product (though I do have my quarrels), but rather because of the production environment. The formula is profitably sound yet boxes writers and directors into tight corners. You want your movie made? Here’s the plot skeleton, a choice of three locations (producer’s summer home, old school, old school, shaky-cam factory), and a million dollars. Go turn a $100 million profit and maybe we’ll give you a Star Wars to direct.
That being said, Hush has some very interesting moving parts in what amounts to an average film. Some of the writing, especially centered around women talking to one another and a writer writing (cheekily writing out thoughts like “Ending stuff” and “pay me”) situates us perfectly into the world of our aurally-challenged author, Maddie. Played by the wild-eyed and commanding Kate Siegel (also the co-writer, embodying the character all the more naturally), Maddie lives alone in some sparsely populated woods. She owns a cat, fails to cook well, and has trouble dating. You may trust that I related. When a masked intruder arrives at her door (and window, and window, and window), the standard logical mechanisms must play out. She should call the police. No, here’s why she can’t. She should leave her house. No, and here’s why. Someone will come looking for her, right? Well, not so fast. What most horror films use as a few throwaway lines or a suspension-stretching scenario to dispense with, Hush uses to build suspense. And it does this well.
Maddie’s deafness doesn’t ever come off as an excuse, but an enriching feature to an already tense situation. It helps that director Flanagan has enough stylistic flair to make her world silently sing. Scenes where the film emphasizes the sounds of the kitchen (a tightly edited cooking montage against the same kitchen rendered silent or a visual interpretation of inner monologue) are inventive, fun and add depth to a lead character whose personality is already strongly felt. She’s terrified, imaginative and self-sufficient — like you might imagine of someone constantly forced to adapt her way of life to the world.
But Maddie’s not a badass, which is where the film goes wrong. The confrontations with the intruder (a stellar John Gallagher, Jr.) may be less interestingly written than they are acted and some of the character actions make you yell more at the screen than because of it, but the final third of the film has a tonal shift that grinds everything to cacophony. “Final girls,” hardened by their survival, turned desperate from self-preservation, have been around a long time. I can believe them, most of the time. But let’s not have our frightened deaf authors turn Daredevil in the course of 10 minutes, huh?
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.