Oculus director Mike Flanagan’s latest Blumhouse production Hush arrives with a tantalizing hook: it’s a slasher movie featuring a deaf woman as the protagonist. On a purely conceptual level this is a thrilling idea. I always feel that many filmmakers today miss the endless opportunities of the horror genre by relying too heavily on the spectacle of violence or jump-scare tactics. There are no filmmakers working in the genre right now with the same stylistic gusto as Brian De Palma or Dario Argento in their heyday. It has been a long time since I saw a horror movie that really put me in the shoes of a character, that made me feel threatened first-hand or immersed me in a psychological aesthetic. It has become a rather hollow genre in that sense.
The heroine of Hush is Maddie (Kate Siegel), a novelist who lives alone in a woodland cottage. When we first meet her she is preparing a meal from an online recipe. Flanagan’s camera arches around to Maddie’s ear and the sound drowns away into how she hears it: the boiling water, the crackling gas flame, the humming oven all fade away into muted drone. The point is clear: Maddie is deaf. No dialogue, no cheap exposition, just good old-fashioned visual storytelling. After the obligatory first-act seed planting–meeting Maddie’s neighbor, the mention of a recent break up, a laptop on low-battery–the horror part of the film kicks in and Flanagan indulges in his first bit of slasher subversion. The first victim is dispatched outside Maddie’s kitchen, desperately banging on the window for help but the pleas are useless. They literally fall on deaf ears. The bemused killer (John Gallagher Jr.) even tries to get Maddie’s attention himself and realizing it’s no use, becomes fascinated with this unexpected challenge. The cat and mouse game begins.
Anchoring your horror film on a deaf woman offers up a lot of cinematic potential. The sound design possibilities are endless. It will also force a filmmaker to be more inventive visually, to direct from a subjective point of view in order to let the audience to experience the world as the protagonist does. In Hush’s opening act, things seem promising. Flanagan puts his filmmaking toolbox to great use and establishes an encouraging framework to jump outward from. The killer’s initial tormenting of Maddie works because it’s a new dynamic. Being discreet is no longer a concern for this psychopath, he just has to be invisible. He can enter the house and walk right up to her as long as she’s facing the other way. This is lots of fun. But it doesn’t take long for the film to fall back on familiar beats as soon as Maddie and her tormentor come face to face.
If Hush remains striking at all, it is because of its simplicity. Flanagan and co-writer/star Siegel keep things relatively dialogue free. This film could work as a silent movie, and for long stretches, operates exactly that way. It moves constantly too and has enough interest to work with a paying Friday-night crowd. Siegel’s performance is strong and entirely convincing. Maddie avoids becoming a mere helpless victim; she’s always thinking, always trying to outsmart the killer yet the horror of the situation never leaves her face. As for Gallagher, he doesn’t do anything especially revelatory with the role of the killer, and the film’s bold decision to unmask him early actually feels like a misstep. The character becomes humanized and loses any physical threat if there isn’t a knife in his hands. He lacks presence and mystery, both of which the film could have used in its villain. The home invasion element also fails to pack a bigger punch and comes across like a retread of territory The Strangers rebooted so well. We’ve gotten to the point now, post-You’re Next, post-It Follows, where an incredibly tactile and active heroine has become the standard and this alone is not enough to elevate the material. There comes a point where you stop doubting Maddie’s chances of survival and in a genre that completely depends on unpredictability for success, it becomes just another middle-of-the-road experience.
Flanagan has proven himself with his two previous movies, Absentia and Oculus, to be one of the horror genre’s most promising voices. When he has a new movie coming out, I look forward to it greatly. Yet there’s something workmanlike and plain about Hush which made it rather forgettable. It lacks the storytelling invention which made Oculus so thrilling and the throbbing unease that elevated Absentia from kickstarter fodder into a calling-card. Hush never cuts too deep and feels like Flanagan’s most disposable movie to date. The concept seems so original and thrilling yet the film somehow isn’t. It feels like more of a technical exercise rather than a dramatic one and while the aesthetic acrobats can be exciting, the novelty wears off quite fast and Hush ultimately becomes just another survivalist horror film in which the lead is forced to become a second-rate MacGyver in order to stay alive. I appreciate Flanagan’s attempt at approaching horror from a new dimension, it just never blossoms into the white-knuckle experience I wanted it to be.
This review was originally written for Dim the House Lights.