This review was originally published as part of our coverage for the South by Southwest Film Festival 2016.
Hush is already drawing numerous comparisons to 1967’s Wait Until Dark, and rightfully so. Both films are home-invasion thrillers where a female protagonist uses her handicap to fight back against her attacker. In this case, the blindness of Audrey Hepburn’s Susy gets traded out for the inability to hear or speak. Likewise, the story swaps Wait Until Dark‘s New York City apartment with a remote cabin in the woods of Alabama.
But once you get past the similar elevator pitches, Hush stands apart from its predecessor and most horror movies in general, Blumhouse or otherwise, as the hero and the villain face each other down very early on in the runtime. When the secluded home of Maddie (Kate Siegel) — a writer who’s struggling to finish her second novel — is targeted by a nameless killer (John Gallagher Jr., in a double victory lap this weekend with 10 Cloverfield Lane), she becomes aware of his presence almost immediately. Part of this is by design, both on the part of the antagonist and of director Mike Flanagan (Oculus), who co-wrote the script with Siegel. As soon as the nameless attacker learns of Maddie’s disability, he toys with her by stealing her phone and sending pictures to her laptop. Then, after moving back outside, he appears right in front of her at the window, his mask peering in as he challenges her to play his game.
Although his visage is a clear homage to Michael Myers — sculptor Bruce Larsen outfitted the mask with white skin, blank features, and a gentle smile — the similarities between the two killers end there. Where Myers stays silent and largely hidden from his victims until it’s too late, Hush‘s madman makes himself visible and vocal to his prey from the get-go. As a result, Flanagan and Siegel both get to lay their cards on the table early, freeing up their characters to focus solely on how to outsmart one another.
That lends a clinical brutality to the violence, as well as the tightly ratcheted game of wits that follows. The audience isn’t left wondering if the killer’s out there (we know he is) or when he’s going to try and strike (right now, if he can) — only what his motivations are. Yet at the same time, Gallagher plays him with such practical, almost charismatic viciousness, that we don’t need to learn everything (or even anything) about him. As an actor, he knows why the anonymous man has chosen to do what he does, and that’s all that matters. This enhances the singularity of his mission, thus making it even more relentless and chilling.
Of course, much of the tension should be credited to Siegel, too. As Maddie, she uses little more than sparse ASL and facial expressions to convey everything from humor to vulnerability and frustration at her own writer’s block, which ends up inhibiting her when she takes a stand against her would-be murderer. In one of the film’s most brilliant sequences, she reaches deep within her consciousness to replenish her sapped determination, creating a fantasy where she’s able to speak once again. This also gives her disability some distinct details not seen in most films featuring deaf characters. Because Maddie was afflicted with sense-crippling bronchial meningitis when she was 13, she’s caught between two worlds — unable to physically hear or talk, but able to remember those things well enough that she can conjure speech in her dreams, visions, and memories.
With the exception of a sister on Facetime and a pair of visits from neighbors, Siegel and Gallagher are the only actors in the film. But to paraphrase a joke from They Came Together, the sound functions as its own character, just as crucial as any of the flesh-and-blood performers. Michael Koff, supervising sound designer Steven Iba, and re-recording mixer Jonathan Wales all work in tandem to treat each noise with decadence. The “thock” of Maddie chopping vegetables is deliciously amplified, as are the bloops of text messages and the chimes of phone calls. By turning up these notifications — these Apple effects that we’ve all heard during our own relaxed nights at home — the sound team establishes a familiar sense of place, only to shatter it once the killer appears. It’s no coincidence that the stabbing of flesh and the crunching of bone are delivered at the same volume as the various creature comforts, the noise level now ear-shattering instead of soothing.
The sound design also reminds us of what Maddie doesn’t have at her disposal, and how this can both a strength and a weakness. Sure, Flanagan could have easily filtered the entire film through her lack of hearing so that we could experience it firsthand. But the heightened audio is more complex in its final result. In the first few minutes of the film, we love it, indulging in the food being prepared and the messages being read. When the violence hits, however, we want to retreat into our own cocoons of silence. We want to drown out the horror. And that’s when we realize how the lack of sound can actually be used to Maddie’s advantage. Even though that’s a theme lifted right from Wait Until Dark, the significant amount of time that Hush spends with the enemy makes the revelation that much more important.