A home invasion thriller with a sensory deprivation chaser, Mike Flanagan’s Hush has a lot going for it but it ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions. This 2016 motion picture features a screenplay by Flanagan and Kate Siegel, with cinematography by James Kniest.
Hush shares a lot with thrillers like 1967’s Wait Until Dark and 2010’s Julia’s Eyes, two entertaining if problematic outings with a hindered heroine pitted against certain evil forces. In Flanagan’s case, the deafness and muteness presents opportunities that make for some haunting material.
The audience is introduced to Maddie (Siegel), a deaf and mute author living on her own in a cottage in the woods. Her closest neighbour is Sarah (Samantha Sloyan). One night, Sarah is murdered by a masked man (John Gallagher Jr.) in front of Maddie’s house but the writer doesn’t notice because she can’t hear her neighbour’s screams. The killer sets his sights on Maddie.
A cat and mouse game commences in which the murderer makes his presence known to Maddie and promptly cuts the power, eliminating her access to Wi-Fi. She tries to get rid of him by asserting that she hasn’t seen his face, so he takes the mask off. He taunts her with a crossbow and a knife. And so on.
Audiences may or may not be familiar with Flanagan’s work from the 2013 horror movie Oculus, which features a more outlandish plot but somehow has more restraint. Hush shares a few things with Oculus, including a search for meaning in the meaningless. But it lacks the space to attach consequence to the characters, which is understandable given the context.
In effect, Hush is an exercise that doesn’t fully commit. The deafness and muteness doesn’t confine the viewer in the same way it confines the protagonist and that limits the capacity for empathy. It tells us that Maddie can’t hear and can’t scream, but then makes us privy to conversations the killer is having outside.
Hush is at its best in the early going, when it uses computers and technology to sneak itself in the door. The “what was that?” moment on behalf of one of Maddie’s friends via FaceTime allows the chills to settle in. The same goes for the mask worn by the killer, which adds a layer of doubt.
Unfortunately, Flanagan stretches too far. Soon, Maddie is hearing voices inside her head. This is blown wide open later after a false ending (sort of) and a sequence in which the author talks to herself Gollum-style. There’s also a ridiculous moment in the bathroom during a critical standoff. Without spoiling the fun, the killer’s entrance is, needless to say, weird.
Hush has some tense moments, like when the murderer circles the house and when Maddie plots one of her escape attempts. But even these elements are undermined by certain details, like the man’s talkativeness or his assured identity. Removing the mystery removes the fear couched in awful possibility.
In fairness, Hush is a fair shade better than many modern horror pictures. That’s not exactly an inspiring sell given the low bar, but Flanagan does toy with some interesting ideas and the cinematography is sharp. There’s some neat suspense, even if the gimmick proves more awkward than necessary. And there’s a cat named Bitch, which is just rad.