In Hush, Mike Flanagan ditches the dialogue but brings the scares

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Hush is one of those movies where I was instantly on board with it as soon as I heard the premise: it’s a home-invasion flick where the main character is deaf and mute. The entire film takes place in the house as our hero struggles to survive in spite of her disability. Now that is what you call a setup. For the most part, director Mike Flanagan delivers exactly what you’d want out of that storyline, mining a cool idea for all its worth and creating an ambitious but restrained horror picture that proves that less really is more.

With virtually no dialogue to work with, Flanagan speaks to us through visuals, and Hush is the ultimate case of showing rather than telling. This is true right from the opening scenes, in which a considerable amount of information about Maddie must be conveyed, even though she has no one to speak to. In order to communicate that our lead character is deaf, Flanagan overloads us with vibrant sound effects before panning in to Maddie’s ear as the audio fades away. He then cuts back around the room to all of the objects that were making noise seconds ago but are now totally silent. A lesser filmmaker might open on Maddie speaking in sign language, giving us a more obvious visual clue, but Flanagan is a master who knows how to manipulate the aesthetics in order to relate information.

Flanagan applies this same philosophy to some of the film’s key plot beats. There’s an incredible scene early on in which Maddie, who is frantically trying to call for help, attempts to connect to her neighbors’ Wi-Fi, but it’s password-protected. The killer clearly realizes what she’s up to, and so we pan over to his phone, where he taps on the Wi-Fi, sees its protected, and looks up at Maddie. Their eyes meet as he puts down the phone, and although they both remain completely silent, so much is said nonverbally. Namely, “you’re fucked now.”

Much of the first act relies on dramatic irony; the audience knows that the killer is creeping around the house, but Maddie is oblivious. We want to scream and reach through the screen as she types away at her keyboard with a knifed maniac standing right behind her, and these beats are totally Hitchcockian. Flanagan commits to drawing out the tension while using little audio, and so these moments of emotion are rarely accompanied by a musical cue. The soundtrack of this movie mainly consists of the audience’s screams.

An entire film of dramatic irony would get old, though, and so it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Maddie discovers the presence of the intruder fairly early on. On the one hand, this was a nice surprise. But once the cat-and-mouse antics begin, there’s definitely a stretch in which Maddie’s repeatedly failed attempts at escaping get old, and so I can’t help but wonder if the film would benefit from cutting some of that fat in the middle while lengthening the period of time during which Maddie is unaware of the man’s presence.

The decision to have the killer take his mask off almost immediately is also sparking to some complaints, but personally, I was a big fan of that. The unmasking is similar in some way to the scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens where Kylo Ren removes his helmet. This is in response to Rey calling him a “creature in a mask,” and the audience is taken aback by how casually we get to see Kylo’s face and how normal looking it is. Likewise, in Hush, it’s unexpected when the mask is removed and the man underneath looks very much like an average dude with nothing particularly notable about him. This also creates one of the great “well, she’s fucked” moments in the movie; Maddie promises she won’t tell anyone, adding that she didn’t see his face, and so the mask is immediately dropped as a way of communicating that there’s no way he’s letting her out of this.

Hush is chock full of setups and payoffs, with almost everything in the first act being important later on. This ranges from the obvious, like the fire alarm which we immediately understand will play a role in the finale, to Sarah tucking her phone in her back pocket. The only exception is a minor subplot involving Maddie’s boyfriend, seemingly added only as a red herring to make us believe the jealous ex might have some involvement in the drama. Because nearly every other idea comes full circle, the fact that this remains completely unaddressed as the credits roll really stands out.

With a movie that follows one person the entire time, it’s so vital that they be someone we’re okay spending time with, and that’s definitely the case with Maddie. Here we have a truly great female horror protagonist, possibly the best I’ve seen since Erin from You’re Next. Never was I frustrated that she was making stupid decisions or ignoring a painfully obvious solution. Rather, because she is clearly extraordinarily smart, and because she’s constantly coming up with the plan we’d think of, seeing her fail is much more scary.

This is a film I will certainly be revisiting many more times, as it’s exactly the type of novel and terrifying movie that we usually only get one or two of in a year. Hush takes an extraordinary premise and executes it nearly to perfection, utilizing effective sound design and a killer performance from Kate Siegel to make for what I would dare call an instant horror classic.

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