Slasher flicks structured around a home invasion are nothing new, but in Hush, Mike Flanagan has managed to craft something quite original through a collection of limitations on the characters and story. By maneuvering around these limitations and using them to his advantage, Flanagan imbues novelty into this oft-tired subgenre and keeps our attention frozen on the screen as a horrible scenario unfolds: a psychopathic killer with no need for ulterior motivations discovers that his next quarry is deaf.
That quarry is our protagonist, Maddie (Kate Siegel, who also earned a writing credit for the film). She is a semi-reclusive author who is working on her second novel. She lives alone out in the woods, but has a neighbor named Sarah who lives within walking distance with her boyfriend John. Due to a bout with bacterial meningitis when she was 13, Maddie lost her ability to hear, and subsequently her ability to speak. She reads lips and signs expertly, though, and is helping Sarah learn to sign as well. Maddie describes hearing a voice in her head when she writes, which fascinates Sarah, but the author is struggling with writing her new novel.
After a meal, Sarah invites Maddie over to her house for a movie, but she isn’t interested. On her way home, Sarah is attacked by a masked man. Sarah manages to run back to Maddie’s back door, but is caught and savagely stabbed to death by the man. Meanwhile, Maddie is focused on the dishes and dinner clean up, so though she is only six feet or so away from the murder, she does not witness it. This intense dramatic irony continues for a few minutes until the killer reveals himself to Maddie, and a game of psychological and physical torture commences between the two.
Maddie’s deafness plays into various plot elements of the film in intriguing ways, and one has to admire Flanagan’s directorial deftness in this regard. For starters, Flanagan introduces this character trait wordlessly by toying with the soundtrack early on in the film – first providing clear auditory accompaniment to Maddie’s meal preparation, and then taking us into Maddie’s head by rendering everything silent. It is a simple technique, but remarkably effective, and it is not all Flanagan has planned for us.
From the first scene featuring the madman, it is clear that he delights in the cat-and-mouse game that he inflicts on his victims. He likes them to know that he is coming, and he tries to catch Maddie’s attention by tapping on the glass with his knife blade. Of course, this cannot rouse her, which perplexes him. Surely, this is a version of the game that he has never played before, and that excites him. As he sneaks into the house to learn more about Maddie, she FaceTimes with her sister on her computer, unknowingly giving a plethora of information to the killer. The tension builds up momentarily, but Flanagan releases it in a masterful sequence finally revealing the killer to Maddie.
From that point, the film unravels as a twist on “The Most Dangerous Game” story. Maddie is not content to allow the killer to torture her for hours and then swoop in and kill her, so she begins to set various plans in motion, of varying success. Because, regardless of her ingenuity, her deafness is a remarkable handicap. The killer has cut power to the home, so it is difficult for her to see where he has gone at any moment. Plus, when she hides, she is never quite sure how much noise she is making or where the killer is moving. Most importantly, even if she can find a way to distract him and make a run for it, out in the forest he could hear her crunching through the leaves while he can move around and pursue her in absolute silence.
This entire set-up is nightmare fuel for some viewers, but in the hands of Flanagan is absolutely pregnant with possibility. Minor details are hinted at through specific camera movements, off-the-cuff stories, and even brief flashbacks, and we’re initially not sure if any of these details are important. But, as the narrative builds, we begin to understand that these details all offer payoffs to some degree. For example, an off-hand statement from Sarah about how John will be joining them partway through the movie night manifests as a opportunity to inject another character in the middle of Maddie and the killer and to see how that scenario plays out. All told, this is a masterful and tight script.
Through it all, though Hush can be viewed as a garden-variety horror film, there is a much more powerful thematic element to it than is usual for this kind of movie. Its themes invoke the complexity of recent supernatural horror films like It Follows and The Babadook far more than a simple exploitation slasher. For the primary thrust of the plot is an isolated deaf woman rebuking a savage and insane attacker at all costs. Her plight is allegorical of the hardest challenges we face in our own lives – challenges which seem tailor-made to best us. It is the student petrified of public speaking being assigned an oral presentation, a dyslexic person struggling with a standardized test, or whatever else happens to you that you are wholly unprepared for. Maddie’s challenge is more patently life-and-death, and her unpreparedness to face it more tangible, but we undoubtedly see ourselves in her and celebrate whatever victories she earns.
Thus, despite the bare-bones nature of the narrative and the bottled setting, Hush succeeds admirably. This is disciplined, tight storytelling with two spectacular performances from our leads. The simplistic nature of the story and our characters’ motivations belie the preponderance of classic themes regarding power struggles, overcoming adversity, and just a good old-fashioned courage in the face of mindless evil. Though the subject matter may be too realistic for some, those who venture into the small world of Hush will be rewarded by a taut and thoughtful thriller.
Hush premiered at the South-by-Southwest Festival (SXSW) in late March of this year, and the rights to the film had been previously purchased by Netflix. It was released for streaming last week (April 8th), so if you’re interested in this film at all, I have to recommend you watch it. As always, if you dig this review, or it introduced you to a movie that you wouldn’t have otherwise heard about, share it with your friends by clicking on my minimalist sharing buttons below. Leave some “likes” and comments if you want to start a conversation about the flick, and it doesn’t have to be just about the things I talked about (because I can’t include everything).
5 responses to “Mike Flanagan’s Disciplined Style Makes the Seemingly Simple “Hush” an Outstanding Slasher”
Great review! I thoroughly enjoyed this film and would recommend it to anyone. One thing that got to me though was that the antagonist didn’t seem as well thought out as a character. There were so many unanswered questions about the reasons for his actions. That being said, somehow it works – probably through carefully worked out scenes and reading between the lines.
I was very annoyed at the backlash for casting a non-deaf actor in the leading role; she co-wrote it and performed very well making the argument null and void. What’s your take?
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I certainly notice the antagonist being pretty cookie-cutter, but that didn’t bother me. I was okay with his motivation just being, “He’s a psychopathic monster” an leaving it at that – he exists more as a force of nature for Maddie to overcome that way. That being said, there are a few nice character moments, like when Maddie sees that he has tally marks on his crossbow (likely indicating # of kills), or after having stabbed John, remarks that there was very little chance that he would best John in a fair fight.
As for the backlash – some people just need things to complain about. It is “acting” for a reason, and as you correctly point out, Kate Siegel had a huge hand in other creative aspects as well.
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The tally marks were a great touch! There was also that line where the antagonist has his run in with John and after being on the receiving end initially, he remarks, “I’ve been there before”. That line had me thinking about his background story for hours after. I think that you are right; the film seemed to benefit from making the viewer work rather than giving the answers away. Kate done a fantastic job of her mostly silent role! It’s amazing to see what can be done with a micro-budget.
Micro / Macro budget – the most important indicator of a well-made horror film is if the creative people involved CARE about their project.
If you haven’t already, you should check out my piece “Horror by the Numbers”, where I look at all kinds of horror films and see how they stack up from a budget / quality standpoint.
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I’ll be sure to check it out! It always interests me to see how different teams manage with different handicaps. Particularly how some directors can work well with next to nothing but the projects that involve everything they could ever need seemingly stew in film purgatory. Thanks for pointing me toward it.