Too often these days, up-and-coming directors (or those determined to convince us that they fit that description) try to reinvent the wheel by giving us something we’ve purportedly “never seen before” —and while ambition is great and all, many (hell, most) of them would be better served by honing their craft on the tried-and-true before going off the deep end in a vain attempt to knock our socks off. Besides, I hate to be the one to break it to you recent film school grads, but there really is nothing new under the sun anyway, and you can just as easily “find your voice” —and get the recognition you so desperately crave — by working within pre-established genre confines as you can blowing the whole damn thing up/throwing the baby out with the bathwater/pick your cliche.
Case in point : Mike Flanagan. He’s directed three feature films now (actually, I understand that he’s got a fourth “in the can,” but that it’s languishing in bankruptcy court as Relativity Media’s holdings are scattered to whatever winds end up picking them up and, more than likely, blowing then off), and they’re all uniformly solid, well-executed efforts that succeed in being both reasonably scary and reasonably surprising by playing with conventions and expectations rather than upending them. Absentia was a strong psychological horror offering that used its budgetary constraints in its favor by keeping much of the true terror “off-screen” and just out of reach; Oculus saw him “go Hollywood” without losing his edge by giving us a time-twister featuring one of the greatest “shoulda seen that coming but didn’t” endings in recent memory; and with his latest, Hush (which was filmed last year, made its “debut” recently on Netflix, and should be out on other “home viewing platforms,” including Blu-ray and DVD, before too long), he returns to his low-budget roots and serves up a pleasing twist on the typical “home invasion” premise that is both genius in its simplicity and miles ahead of the pack in terms of its execution.
I had been planning on watching this one sooner or later, to be sure, but Lisa Marie Bowman’s review lit a fire under my ass and convinced me to go with the “sooner” option — and as usual, following her advice proved to be a smart move. Hush is a more stripped-down affair than the most celebrated recent examples of the “home invasion” subgenre (I’m thinking specifically of You’re Next and both iterations of Funny Games), but is no less effective for that — in fact, one of its greatest strengths lies in its absolutely “bare-bones” approach. A deaf-mute author named Maddie (played with incredible gusto by Kate Sigel, who also co-wrote the script along with Flanagan) has retreated to a secluded home in the woods after a bad break-up. She spends most of her time working on her second novel, playing amateur chef, and teaching sign language to her one and only neighbor, Sarah (Samantha Sloyan). Her idyll is shattered one fateful evening, though, when a masked intruder referred to simply in the credits as “The Man” (a creepy-as-fuck John Gallagher Jr.) breaks into Sarah’s place and ends up killing her when she escapes his clutches momentarily and flees to Maddie’s spread for help — never making it past the front porch. And that’s where our heroine captures his attention, interest, and flat-out demonic sense of obsession. He starts by stealing her cell phone — and things only get worse from there, as you’d expect.
Maddie’s disabilities add an intriguing wrinkle to the proceedings here, no doubt, and Flanagan’s increasing confidence as a filmmaker ensures that he chooses just the right times and places for us to experience things as she does by “going silent,” but it takes more than a fiendishly clever conceit to deliver a finished product this strong from a set-up this basic, and that’s where our two leads really step to the fore. Gallagher is pure methodical menace in his turn as “The Man,” scaring the shit out of us despite the fact that his face is obscured for most of the film, but it’s really Siegel who steals the show here, delivering a performance than runs the emotional gamut with the aid of very little dialogue. She’s called upon to do some seriously heavy lifting by communicating what she’s thinking and feeling to the audience without actually saying it, and damn if she doesn’t create a horror heroine for the ages by the time the end credits roll. “Acting!” “Genius!” “Thank you!”
The plot delivers some juicy twists and turns, have no fear on that score, but they’re kept in proper proportion and function merely as the “sizzle” rather than the “steak.” Hush is first and foremost a character-driven horror, and by getting us to actually care about Maddie and actively root for her, the bumps in the road are that much more affecting and unsettling when we do, in fact, hit them. This is all “Storytelling 101” stuff, without question, but that seems to be a class that too many aspiring screenwriters and directors forget about once they finally get their “break” in the industry. Flanagan and Siegel took its lessons to heart, though, and therein lies all the difference.
Hush, then, is more remarkable (and, yes, it is remarkable) for how it’s done than for what it is — and while some may say that’s me looking to find a way to say nice things about a derivative and formulaic film, I say watch it yourself and then get back to me if you still feel the same way.