By Andrew Buckner
Rating: *** out of *****.
As an exercise in continued suspense, director Mike Flanagan’s Hush works incredibly well. The film echoes superior efforts, most noticeably the 1967 Audrey Hepburn starring tour de force Wait Until Dark, in its apparently unproblematic ability to shred our nerves. More often than not, this is derived from its capacity to evoke panic amid mundane surroundings. Remarkably, such transpires while keeping audience patrons’ devotion almost constantly peaked throughout with the implement of its deadly game of cat mouse. Flanagan’s latest, parallel to the adaptation of Frederick Knott’s play mentioned above, also incorporates the impairment of senses. Hepburn suffered blindness in the previously mentioned nail-biter. With Hush, the condition is deafness. This our heroine accrued as a teenager. The result, though ultimately retracing the motions of far too many analogous thrillers, is still surprisingly effective.
Such is thanks to Kate Siegel’s hypnotic and believable turn as the lonely writer, Maddie. Siegel injects her otherwise one-dimensional character with a wounded likability. This makes it all the easier to root for her. Such is especially visible when the murderous madman she sees watching her outside her secluded residence in the woods threatens to slaughter her by morning. Siegel projects a vulnerability from the on-set that still quietly cries out of her eventual refusal to be victimized. It is one that we can sense making her easy prey for the psychotic, and similarly archetypically penned, villain of the tale. This individual is known exclusively as The Man (John Gallagher, Jr.).
Yet, where Siegel, who had a small bit in Flanagan’s underappreciated Oculus from 2013, fashions her protagonist into a sum far greater than the part she co-wrote with Flanagan: Gallagher’s enactment doesn’t fare nearly as well. His portrayal is adequate. Still, he has difficulty rising above the generic trappings of the nefarious role he has been provided. Michael Trucco as John, Samantha Sloyan as Sarah and Emilia Graves as Max correspondingly do as well as they can. This is considering their run of the mill, plot-serving on-screen personalities. The climax also feels rehashed and, ultimately, underwhelming. It also attempts to make a commentary about the dangers of our era’s technological obsession. But, this too is distributed in no new way. In the end, it is this familiarity, as well as these shortcomings in the character development, which make Hush a solid, but forgettable, outing in fear.
There is nothing innovative or surprising about anyone we meet in this cinematic journey. Furthermore, many of the events herein are equally uninspired. A proposed ‘twist’ as to The Man’s real identity, which transpires late in the third act, smacks of much the same repackaged sensation. Additionally, one scene where Maddie writes, “My boyfriend is on the way”, in lipstick on glass as a message to the killer seems like it was molded after the brilliant opening of Wes Craven’s 1996 game changer, Scream. The only consequence is it comes off as an imitation of Craven’s far sturdier and better executed sequence. This becomes one of many other small details that temporarily throw us out of this otherwise well-honed vehicle. These flaws become more difficult to overlook. What hurts the attempt most of all is that it serves to constantly remind us of the imitation, as well as loftier entries in the slasher on the loose sub-genre, buried beneath the feature’s intriguing surface.
Regardless, many of the technical attributes help sustain the uncertainty and keep our consideration invested. James Kniest gives us dark, brooding cinematography. It is perfect for the piece. Flanagan’s editing compliments the aforementioned attributes splendidly. Ken Gorrell’s top-notch minimalistic special, as well as Bret Culp and Brian Jeremiah Smith’s visual, effects add authenticity to the project. Jaan Child’s set decoration helps this previously stated characteristic spectacularly. The art department does a great job. Brock and Bruce Larsen create a mask for the killer which is unsettling. This is even if Flanagan and Siegel make the fatal mistake of having The Man reveal his face, and therefore diminish much of the mystery, far too early. Joshua Adeniji, Kate Jesse and Michael B. Koff issue sound which makes the long periods of quiet interrupted by sharp, sudden noises, which Flanagan instills into the work often to build anxiety, all the more creepy and disturbing.
Flanagan’s behind the lens contribution which, when combined with Siegel’s high-caliber representation, makes the movie compulsively watchable. He heightens the tension dazzlingly with minimal dialogue. As a matter of fact, it totals less than fifteen minutes of the runtime. He also conjures haunting images aplenty. The craftsman of 2011’s gem, Absentia, uses the largely subtle instincts of terror building, though all tried and true, he utilized in his past features here with just as successful an outcome. Flanagan’s brilliant and striking use of The Newton Brothers’ unsettling music becomes a potent punctuation point for these already stalwart facets. It increases these already uncomfortable instances throughout to levels above the general formula that plays into all angles of the narrative. These elements could’ve easily become cliché, given they have been dispensed on uncountable circumstances in comparable endeavors, in less capable hands. Yet, the piece peaks our attention after its opening ten minutes of quickly fading serenity and brief, yet satisfactory enough, exposition. For the rest of the wisely compact length, Flanagan keeps the pace moving expertly with an almost unwavering intensity pulsating throughout.
This detail mechanizes well enough to keep our mind from returning too often to the reality that this is all strictly serviceable material. The trepidation victoriously produced is window dressing for an otherwise hollow, by the numbers undertaking. Yet, Hush, though far from Flanagan or even 2016’s best horror submission, is worth a glimpse simply for the enduring strength of this quality alone. It keeps Flanagan in the running as a chief of his respective field. This is despite the fact that compared to the baker’s dozen of cinematic treats in his directorial catalogue, Hush is more mediocre than masterwork.