A film doesn’t have to have a boatload of jump scares or shocking moments to be frightening. I’ve found that jump scares in particular, when overused, to be detrimental to the quality of a horror film. But Hush, the 2016 film co-written and directed by Mike Flanagan, and starring fellow co-writer Kate Siegel, does not rely on quick instances of surprise to juice up its fright with adrenaline. Rather, Flanagan and Siegel place their protagonist in a situation that is naturally horrifying, and use the tension that creates to settle a viewer into deep, feature-length unease.
Maddie Young (Siegel) is a 30-something novelist who was left deaf and mute while still a teenager owing to a bout with meningitis. Her world is silent, and that’s not a good thing for a woman in a horror film who lives all alone in an isolated house in the woods. Because outside a man in a mask and cap (John Gallagher Jr.) has just finished hacking up a neighbor from down the way. This unnamed killer discovers that Maddie can’t hear him banging around on her porch, and decides to play a sick game of hide and seek with his newest victim.
Hush clocks in at a short 81 minutes (we love swift films here at Missile Test), so there’s not a lot of setup before the horror starts. The killer stalks Maddie, taking advantage of her vulnerability. On screen is seemingly every woman’s nightmare — a man with violence in his heart. The killer is rendered all the more cruel because Maddie seems such easy prey. During the bulk of the film the killer remains outside the house while Maddie is inside. The killer circles the property, never trying to get in, but thwarting every attempt Maddie makes at summoning help or making her escape. And there it is, that tension I wrote about above. This dance between Maddie and the killer is a constant menace (with the exception of a cheap bit of misdirection in the final act). It’s no less frightening in the middle or at the end than it was when Maddie first saw the killer staring at her through the doors to her kitchen. The only real jump scare comes early on, before the moment Maddie makes her discovery.
It’s rare to come across a film this unsettling. There’s not much of a body count in this one, so it’s not regular horror tropes that give Hush its power. The killer is handy with a knife, but he’s no slasher flick villain. The location is akin to a cabin in the woods flick, but that’s where the similarities trail off. This is a movie about the worst thing that can happen to a woman while she is alone. Lest one think so, I’m not saying that the film carries any sort of message about women being subjected to violence. Hush just tells a very scary story. It does play upon what we know about violence against women, but it doesn’t exploit that knowledge.
Hush didn’t get a theatrical release, and that’s a shame. It’s better than most films, horror or otherwise, that are shown in thousands of theaters across the country. But, we are fortunate enough to live in the Information Age, meaning that Hush is probably reaching a far larger audience than it would have were it released straight to VHS back in the 1990s. As of this posting, it’s streaming on Netflix. I recommend seeking it out.