Mike Flanagan is a talented and prolific new filmmaker, who has managed to make six features within six years, all within the horror-thriller genre ambit; his forthcoming projects are a TV series based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (2018), and Doctor Sleep, an adaptation of Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining (!).
Hush is the least usual project in Flanagan’s CV so far. Described as a “secret” production, its existence as a completed work was unveiled in late 2015; it appeared on cinema screens and Netflix in 2016. It is the fruit of a close collaboration between Flanagan and his wife, Kate Siegel, who both stars (doing a great job) and co-wrote the script. Tales from the shoot speak of how the duo plotted out all the moves of the film according to the geography of their own home, and employed a good deal of improvisation in the eventual filming (on a location that was not their home). There is, however, nothing shaky in the finished result: it’s beautifully calculated and controlled at all levels. (William Friedkin professes to be a fan of it, too, which doesn’t surprise me.)
Where other Flanagan films (such as Before I Wake [2016, shot 2013] and Gerald’s Game ) are well-directed stews of dubious ideas either closely adapted from or clearly inspired by Stephen King’s therapeutic horror-fantasies, Hush is a cut above that level. Ingeniously orchestrated, it avoids virtually every cheap, tiresome shock effect done to death by contemporary horror films. Even the evident plot “hooks” planted at the start, by the time they inevitably come into play by Act 3, are satisfyingly delivered.
Most of the action occurs within one, large, country house. Maddie (Siegel) is a successful writer who lost both her hearing and her voice at age 13. She has a good friend, Sarah (Samantha Sloyan), close by next door; she communicates via sign language with friends and family on laptop Skype and mobile phone. We are treated, early on, not only to crucial, physical details about phones-in-pockets and whatnot; but also an elaborate discourse (very familiar to a writer like myself!) on how Maddie is psychically tormented by the “multiple endings” she naturally envisages for all her plots in progress, and her terrible difficulty in deciding on the best one.
A local serial killer, credited only as Man (John Gallagher, Jr), comes calling. He doesn’t manage to get inside Maddie’s house straight away, but he’s determined to wait around, bide his time and check out the various entrance options until he can make his decisive move. Various somewhat successful manoeuvres on Maddie’s part against him only increase his anger, caginess and persistence.
Although Man begins his campaign in a Halloween-style mask, that accessory comes off pretty quickly to reveal (as Stephanie Van Schilt has pointed out) … just another, ordinary, harassive-abusive guy, nobody who looks especially monstrous or evil. The film doesn’t even bother to give him some cooked-up backstory to explain a spurious psychopathology. He’s just a really bad, violent, everyday dude – giving Hush a chilling resonance when viewed in late 2017.
The film remains superbly grounded when it comes to depicting all the movements (of both characters) in and around the house. For a horror-thriller, it keeps to a surprisingly realistic system of speeds, eyelines and plausible options. There is very little here of the typically “magical” appearances and disappearances of the villain suddenly bursting into the foreground of a frame, or seemingly penetrating solid walls and locked doors as if a phantom. (Of course, that can be done well, too, as in Fred Walton’s films.) The one time that Hush breaks this rule, it conserves the move for a late stage of the story – and, even then, effectively restrains itself by keeping to the apparition of a blurred shape in the background of a normal, static shot.
Restraint is, indeed, the watchword of this film. For once, the musical score for a horror piece (by the Newton Brothers, also regular collaborators with Flanagan) does not ramp up every chill, fright and dramatic crescendo with a steep-rise-then-sudden-death cacophony.
Apparently, Flanagan and Siegel toyed, at first, with the idea of making a wholly “silent” film – whatever that may have meant to them at the time (no soundtrack at all? I doubt it). They took another path, and I am very happy that they did: alternating between the “real” sound of the external world (well reconstructed and designed), and Maddie’s internal world of silence (also sonically stylised). This meshes with a visual mise en scène schema typical of many fine thrillers in the Hitchcock/De Palma/Polanski tradition: we are often given to see what Maddie does not turn to see, because she cannot hear it.
Many thrillers in the lineage of Wait Until Dark (1967), Blink (1994) or the TV series Hannibal have played on characters’ “sense deprivation” (mainly of sight or hearing) as an enabling cinematic device, even at the risk of gratuitous sadism (on the filmmakers’ part) and galloping implausibility; Hush joins the top tier rank of winning examples.
Eventually, the story winds back to those multiple endings that play in Maddie’s mind. As if this ordeal has become one of her own fictions (it’s a light meta-twist), she imagines each option, and plays them out one by one – the film, of course, picturing each for us in lightning succession. It’s possible that absolutely none of these scenarios will end well for her – but only one of them, ultimately, is even worth trying in the flesh. See how she fares with it in Hush.
© Adrian Martin 12 January 2018