(Jonathan Darby, USA, 1998)


Cultural commentator Andrew Ross predicted in 1989 that "the camp taste of tomorrow may be for the made-for-TV movies of the ’70s and ’80s, which seem so flat and stale to the eyes of today’s tastemakers." This was written before the phenomenal rise of cable TV – and especially the Hallmark channel, which presents a ceaseless diet of earnest and/or lurid telemovies, all presented in the same glassy-eyed, syrupy way.

Watching Hush at a cinema is like watching Hallmark blown up to a huge, frightening scale. Movies just aren’t made like this anymore: trashy without being overly, self-consciously camp; outrageous without the now customary nudge-wink flattery to the audience. Like some distant Old Hollywood melodrama, it plunges us, without apology, into a soap opera of mad mothers, downtrodden sons and endangered daughters-in-law.

If it did not star Jessica Lange and Gwyneth Paltrow, Hush would be indistinguishable from any old B movie. However, the film’s pretension to a certain, respectable quality ends up making it all the more perverse. Here is a tale that dares to trade in a truth that is beyond all fashionable political agendas. As a passing character helpfully explains: "Most men in analysis are talking about their mothers – and most women in analysis are talking about their mothers-in-law."

Marsha (Lange) is a control-freak. Calm and elegant on the outside, she reaches for her cigarettes, pops on dark glasses and starts nervously twitching whenever her beloved son Jackson (Johnathon Schaech) begins living his own life beyond her reach. Particularly disconcerting to Marsha is the unexpected arrival of Jackson’s feisty amour Helen (Paltrow).

As marriage and childbirth proceed apace for Jackson and Helen, Marsha’s interventionist schemes become frankly psychotic – and skeletons start popping out of the family closet at an alarming rate. Psychologically, this carnival of sin and madness only makes sense on a fanciful, hallucinatory level; but the flagrant implausibility hardly matters.

Writer-director Jonathan Darby does not take the high-key, near-hysterical approach of similarly themed B movies such as Mother’s Boys (1994). His treatment of this material is straight to the point of blandness. The histrionics of the story eventually kick in almost despite Darby’s dead hand – as Marsha begins terrorising her own, benevolent mother-in-law and wielding a syringe filled with a lethal dose of morphine.

The highlight of this odd, enjoyable movie is a gruesome home-birth scene stage-managed by Marsha over the drugged-out body of Helen. As the monstrous mother-in-law urges her captive to push, Helen recovers just enough of her anger and hatred to yell back: "I am pushing, you bitch!"

© Adrian Martin June 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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