Hush begins with a wall of sound — wind blowing, tree branches rustling, birds chirping, all layered under a score turned up to 11. We see an isolated house and, in it, Maddie Young (Kate Siegel) cooking. Lamb sizzles in the oven, knives slice through onions on the cutting board. As the camera focuses on Maddie’s ear, the sounds fall away. We hear almost nothing.
It’s an effective set up for the movie’s premise: Maddie is deaf, mute, and living in relative isolation. The sound adjusts back to a familiar level, but its presence is no longer invisible. We’re reoriented, now understanding what we know that Maddy doesn’t. It’s an innocuous enough start, and it’s only reinforced by a friendly scene between Maddie and her neighbor. They stumble through a signed conversation (the neighbor is learning ASL) and if you didn’t know what movie you were in, you might think the next 90 minutes would follow the friendship that develops between these two women despite their communication gap. But the next time we see Maddie’s neighbor, she’s screaming on the porch, pursued by a masked man with a crossbow. Maddie doesn’t hear.
Like director Mike Flanagan’s previous feature, Oculus, Hush finds its scares in a lack of perception. In Oculus, the heroine attempts to destroy the cursed mirror that drove her family insane by manipulating what they saw. It’s a battle of wits as she and the mirror try to outsmart the other’s tricks. Here, the formula is shifted: the man (John Gallagher, Jr.) seems to feed off the terror of his victims, but Maddie can’t hear him coming, or scream for help. He has to step up, luring her into his cat-and-mouse game by letting her know he’s watching.
This play on a locked-room horror story makes for an impressively frightening film. As the man announces, he could come in and kill Maddie whenever he wants. But he wants to break her first. We get to see him shift strategies before Maddie notices his presence. She can’t hear him stalking her, so he sends photos. He can’t taunt her with quips unless she can read his lips, so he removes the mask. His terror turns into a conscious, staged performance. At one point, when Maddie is too shocked to take it in and walks away, he’s livid. She has to be watching for it to work.
Hush is one of those capable horror films that lets its characters be smart without having falling apart. Both the man and Maddie are resourceful as hell — the tension comes from the fact that the very good fight she’s putting up might not be good enough. Flanagan and Young (who co-wrote the film) shared that they brainstormed tactics for Maddie and the man by breaking into and running through their own home. This work shows in the film’s stellar choreography – the action feels totally organic, pouring through (and over, and under) the house.
Stellar performances from Siegel and Gallagher are what really sells Hush. The former (who is a hearing actress) is required to be silent for the duration of the film, using only expression and breathe to communicate terror. And while she does so quite effectively, she’s hardly just a muted scream queen. Siegel finds both the fear and self-doubt that led Maddie to live in isolation and the steel core that lets her keep fighting. And as the man, Gallagher is terrifying. Known for playing quiet and/or tortured types, Siegel described him as “such a likable man,”adding he’s “a Ted Bundy!”. One would probably describe him as friendly were it not for the buck knife in his hand.
For all that makes Hush original, it’s a solidly old fashioned horror film: relentless, terrifying, and a total joy to watch.
Hush will be available on Netflix starting April 8.
Featured image courtesy of SXSW.