“Hush” is a tense, breathless horror film full of things we’ve seen before but can never get enough of when they’re done well, including a kickass heroine, an inherently frightening premise, and a creepy stalker in a white mask. It also has a few terrific things we don’t see very often, like an awareness of how modern technology actually works and a deaf lady defending herself with kitchen knives. So really, there’s something for everyone.
Kate Siegel, who co-wrote the screenplay with the director, Mike Flanagan (also her husband), stars as Maddie, a fiercely independent single woman who’s been deaf and mute since a childhood bout with meningitis. A novelist by profession, Maddie lives in a rural house with few neighbors (uh-oh) but is in regular contact with her sister (Emilia Graves) via FaceTime. The one neighbor she does have, Sarah (Samantha Sloyan), is also a friend, coming over often to hang out and practice her sign language (even though, like all deaf characters in movies, Maddie is an expert lip-reader).
Then comes the trouble. A crossbow-wielding killer (John Gallagher Jr.) in a creepy white mask arrives at Maddie’s place, his intentions conveyed to us in a way that, shall we say, leaves no room for doubt. Lest this feature film turn out to be a short subject, the killer is the sort who likes to toy with his victims. He gets into Maddie’s house and uses her own iPhone and Macbook to terrorize her. She is duly terrorized, but she’s not one to give up easily. And the game is afoot!
The beginning of the film is admirably efficient, smoothly setting up all the details we’ll need later (plus some red herrings) in a matter of minutes. Flanagan (who made “Oculus” a few years ago) also uses this opportunity to establish the importance of sound in our world and the effect of its absence in Maddie’s. We hear the crisp, amplified sounds of Maddie cooking dinner, the ping of her text messages that she can’t hear (they also vibrate), the shrill scream of the smoke detector (which lights up). While those of us with functional hearing can certainly imagine what it’s like to be deaf in a sound-filled world, seeing it in action helps us fall under the movie’s spell and to empathize with Maddie.
The scenario of a person who can’t hear (or see, or walk, etc.) fighting someone who not only has all of their faculties but weapons besides, is the stuff of nightmares. Flanagan and Siegel do not squander the opportunity, finding ways to keep the action fresh despite being limited to a single location with a small number of characters, one of whom doesn’t speak. Except for a few draggy minutes about two-thirds of the way through, the pacing is tight, the story engrossing even though, if we think about it, there are only about three ways it can end.
Siegel’s magnetic screen presence also helps maintain our interest, her intense pale eyes and expressive face doing most of the acting for her. John Gallagher Jr., a likable actor from “The Newsroom” and “10 Cloverfield Lane,” has some nice moments as well (the mask is not an encumbrance for long), and the film has a few welcome touches of humor and a generally down-to-earth sensibility.
It also has, make no mistake, some brutal violence. But the cat-and-mouse aspect of the story doesn’t mean it’s 87 minutes of a pitiable woman being tortured. Maddie is vulnerable and disadvantaged, yes. But she’s strong and creative — she’s a fiction writer, remember. She knows what needs to happen for her story to end well.
B+ (1 hr., 27 min.; )