As an English student and aspiring Clive Barker, no feedback made me want to shove things in places more than that hoary old chestnut “show, don’t tell.” It was glib, it was unspecific, and worst of all, it was annoyingly valid. So, yay, no one has to say it anymore. Instead, just load up 2016’s Hush on Netflix and say “do this.” It’s a masterclass in how little you need to say, literally or figuratively, to tell a great story. The film is the brainchild of director-writer Mike Flanagan and actress-writer Kate Siegel, both of whom you may remember from 2013’s arabesque tale of an evil mirror, Oculus, and it finds the pair at the top of their game. They produced a script that is both powerfully lean and credibly mean, catching heroine Maddie, played by Siegel, in a perfect mousetrap of psycho killer and circumstance. Siegel’s performance in particular rises to Essie-Davis-in-Babadook levels of complexity and accomplishment, all while being deprived of that most basic of an actress’s tools: her voice.
The story follows Maddie, a thriller writer having a really tough time finishing the follow-up to her first novel. After a jarring clap of the movie title in the sky (Hello, sound design!), the camera drifts down to Maddie’s small green house in a big green wood. Kubrick’s Shining lets the audience see how far the Torrence family is going from help as their Volkswagen scales the mountain path to the Overlook; Hush takes the direct route. We spend a little time alone with her in the beginning and accumulate biography like a stalker: There was a guy named Craig in her life, but no more. All of her desert island books probably would be written by Stephen King. She’s an ambitious, but not-too-accomplished chef. She is an Apple commercial. Her picturesque country house has more windows than walls. And, of course, the kicker — she’s deaf-mute.
Neighbor Sarah comes to visit, eager to gush about Maddie’s book and practice her sign language, although Maddie can lip read without difficulty. We collect a couple more fun facts about Maddie. She has a cat named Bitch and all the mordant humor that implies. She explains her ability to conceive of an unexpected twist as “writer’s brain,” where she simultaneously entertains all possible endings to a story in her head, and she perceives these parallel universes as being spoken in her mother’s voice. (Remember that one, kids.) She lost her own voice and hearing from an illness as a teenager. She has a smoke alarm that not only flashes blinding lights, but has the sound ratcheted up high enough to vibrate – the only way she can “hear” it in her sleep. (Whoops, there goes dinner.) And she may be relatively isolated, but she really lucked out to have an incredibly sweet neighbor down the road.
A digression: for almost the entirety of my professional life, I’ve worked in the closed captioning field, first as an offline caption editor, creating captions for broadcast, captions and subtitles for home media, and SDH subtitles for theaters, then eventually making the jump to live broadcast captions – nope, computers don’t do that, at least not yet. It’s me. And my husband does the same kind of work, so the default in our house has always been captions on, even though no one technically needs them. (Although sometimes watching Hannibal or the Twelfth Doctor…well, it doesn’t hurt.) Still, even as a caption fan, it’s a little odd to have to use captions to understand Maddie. A good odd. A displacing, assumption-stripping kind of odd that puts you back on your heels in a way that a good story, but particularly a good horror story, often will. We have to experience briefly a different kind of engagement than we might have been expecting. Not that there is a true barrier; Maddie’s captioned sign language is easy to follow and Siegel does a tremendous job without actually making a sound.
When Sarah leaves, we’re alone with Maddie again, but not for very long. A man in a mask is looking in on Maddie, pinning Sarah’s corpse between him and the many windows of Maddie’s kitchen. While Maddie carries on with her evening and ruined dinner, he guts Sarah. The scene seems to go on for a long time. Sarah doesn’t die as quickly as people in slasher movies tend to. The killer doesn’t say anything either for all of this, but as he observes Maddie, it’s easy enough to piece together what he must be thinking, too.
The sequences that follow are elegant and purposeful. The killer realizes Maddie is deaf and explores the house, taking his time, then taking her phone. He listens while she FaceTimes with her sister, and he’ll later be able to repeat her sister’s side of the conversation back to her verbatim. All the while, she has no idea, and while not overplayed, these scenes have all the punch of the dreadful Where’s Waldo-like scares in supernatural thrillers like Paranormal Activity and Mama. When her sister spies the killer’s movement briefly behind Maddie and asks, “Who’s that?” Maddie assures her it’s just the cat.
When the killer finally reveals himself – through a series of pictures of Maddie taken with her own iPhone, sent to her Macbook – he’s back outside, assuring her that he can come in anytime, but won’t until she’s ready to die. With her phone in his possession, he then cuts the power, slashes her tires, and taunts her with his knowledge of how alone she is. Much of the movie plays out with Maddie inside and the man laying siege, but it’s not a home invasion movie exactly. The man has already laid claim to the house and has the tools to cross its threshold without invitation. And while Maddie uses the house defensively, her real focus is escape. The house, Maddie will come to realize, is the killer’s instrument of slow torture, and what homeowner among us can’t relate to that?
I admire the setup very much. Its economy suits the medium perfectly. The trap Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel made for Maddie seals her in without straining credulity or requiring her incapability. Aside from one point late in the movie where she arguably missed an opportunity to team up against the killer when Sarah’s husband shows up, she doesn’t miss a trick. (And honestly, she’s so beaten up at the point, you’re asking for post-Terminator Sarah Connor actions from Terminator Sarah Connor for that to happen.) Maddie proves as resourceful as anyone short of MacGyver could be, using blunt instruments, aerosols, clever diversions, and small space-shimmying action as the situation dictates, and all of this without the ability to hear the killer or what the killer hears. If you want to criticize this heroine, you really have to go back to the premise and decisions to which we are not a party, back to her living so far from help (although she has a least one friendly couple within wi-fi range), back to her not having a landline (although the killer would have cut that, too, certainly), back to whatever the deal was with Craig and not living with her sister and how isolation chose her, not the other way around (although she’s an adult; why should she live with her sister or a bad boyfriend?)
I also dig that’s Maddie being deaf-mute complicates her situation, but by no means only makes her more vulnerable. While the killer exploits her deafness early on, it’s as fair to say he only can do that because he has the element of surprise. After she knows he’s there, that doesn’t really ever help him again. Plus, she’s able to use loud sounds to hurt him without being affected herself. She’s able to concentrate without being unnerved by his approach. He simply underestimates her, or overestimates his ability to exploit her deafness, at critical points. And though she physically injures him more than once, Maddie may cut deepest when she simply turns from the window between them to cross into another room. As she closes the door behind her, we glimpse him rage – silently now, as we’re half in Maddie’s perspective — against the glass.
Really Maddie’s enabled the same way everyone is, with technology, and having that taken away is what makes her vulnerable. The commonplaces of a connected world surround Maddie from the very beginning, evoking a familiar illusion of proximity to her sister, to a string of messages on her phone, even to the mysterious ex Craig. Most people watching this movie, exclusive to a streaming service no less, take those kinds of tenuous connections for granted. Even if you live in a metropolitan or suburban setting, how many of us really know our neighbors? How physically close are you to the people you’re close to? Her home is a din of notification dings just like any of ours would be. It’s easy to understand why Maddie would choose to live where she is, even without being intimate with her circumstances and having her reasons only alluded to, never fully explained.
When I wrote about Slumber Party Massacre, I ragged on the ordinariness of the unmasked Driller Killer and how this signaled his impotence and magnified anxieties of masculinity latent in slasher movies. Hush’s unnamed masked killer, played by The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr, is a fair counterpoint to that position, in that he totally, totally moots it. I call him a masked killer, but he makes the decision to unmask fairly early on, and the ordinariness that reveals, even his dry humor, sharpens the threat. The killer’s unmasking itself is a conscious promise to Maddie that he will not let her survive this ordeal, and the languorous way he tugs that smiling, blank face aside almost invokes a strip tease. His is essentially the same guarantee Jason, Michael Myers, et al make by presenting the dehumanizing mask as their best face forward, but there’s something uniquely terrible about someone wanting to kill you that isn’t a faceless engine of remorseless evil. Fully half of the movie is the killer deflecting Maddie’s escape attempts, savoring the experience of thwarting her and seeming to prove again and again that she is powerless against him. He doesn’t need a mask to do that.
And unlike the Driller Killer and so many of that masked coterie, he may not need a reason either. There was enough grumbling about this that Flanagan wrote a Facebook post about it, since taken down, but admired by The A.V. Club and others in the time it graced our interwebs, arguing essentially that motiveless evil in Hush is a feature, not a bug. Although he does admit they worked out a backstory — for the actor, not for us. We might still intuit why the killer is doing all of this. Pure enjoyment maybe. He seems to relish stabbing Sarah for sure, and after he unmasks, he encourages Maddie to “have fun.” That might be reason enough, and with all the windows in her house, it’s a pretty ideal setup for a sadist to watch his victim suffer from a variety of vantage points. But if he enjoys Sarah’s death and Maddie’s torment, when he kills Sarah’s husband John by stabbing his carotid artery, he soothes John like a child or an animal. “It’s done. It’s done.”
Still, if simple sadism or even sadism towards women isn’t the reason, it’s as close as we’re going to get. Twist endings, so much a genre mainstay since The Sixth Sense and Scream, require secrets, but there aren’t any here. We’ve seen Craig’s profile pic in Maddie’s contact list so no ambiguity there, even before the killer reveals himself. Once he does, it’s clear Maddie doesn’t know this guy and the guy doesn’t know her. He doesn’t even know of her, despite being a published author. When John shows up a little later, it will be clear the killer’s a stranger to him, too. Maddie isn’t in a position to conversate with her tormentor exactly, but she understands everything she needs to when he shows her his face. A backstory would add running time, but I’m not convinced it would add anything else.
Hush shows you everything you need in a great horror film, and nothing you don’t. Including, in this case, reasons. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good mythos. But adding background for its own sake can normalize and domesticate material that should be shocking. I love the Halloween series, but I’ve never felt the Cult of Thorn added in later films worked. I’m not sure that it was even necessary to introduce that Laurie Strode was Michael’s sister in Halloween II. Isn’t it scarier if Michael Myers’ stalking and killing is truly universalized, rather than just limited to the orbit of his immediate family? Which brings to mind another aggravating old saw: Keep it simple, stupid. Hush does that, too, and like aggravating old maxims tend to be, it’s pretty good advice.
The next sign Angela teaches her infant daughter is going to be “behind you.”