There’s a considerable appreciation to be had for a solid, mostly intelligent genre exercise such as Mike Flanagan’s HUSH. Sometimes, smart and inspired is enough, and ever since his well-above-average debut (ABSENTIA), Flanagan has been hard at work giving his audience just that and something a little more to boot. There are almost zero pretensions to be found in this short, simple, efficient, and surprisingly clever home invasion yarn; it’s merely a welcome addition to a familiar (often to a fault) genre that doesn’t really aspire to reinvent the wheel so much as it does to have its fair share of fun breathing new life into it by challenging conventions and expectations in near-equal measures.
A deaf writer alone in the woods with, save for a couple neighbors she’s quite friendly with, only her thoughts as company is terrorized one night by an intruder (John Gallagher Jr.) whose motivations are certainly more ambiguous than his identity – this is the simple but convenient logline of Flanagan’s film if there ever was one. Immediately, the viewer is thrust into the unique world of its protagonist, only to be taken out of it as soon as the assailant makes his presence known, and for the remainder of the run-time we are (mostly sonically) taken in and out of these two respective points of view. It actually sounds LESS ambitious on paper than it is in execution, though this ends up being one of the film’s most striking features.
Kate Siegel turns in commendable work as the heroine, who we learn from the back of one of her published novels has been living with her particular ailment since the age of 13, and sharing writing credits with Flanagan himself seems to have provided the proceedings with a refreshingly non-self-congratulatory female touch. HUSH empowers its protagonist without practically begging the audience to sympathize with her plight, which registers as something of a surprise in today’s cinematic landscape, and the narrative doesn’t rely on the usual slasher idiocy to remain constant (the film not really exploring the motivations of the intruder doesn’t strike me as idiocy so much as a desire to keep things interesting); instead, the mistakes made by Siegel’s Maddie Young are for the most part logical and notably human given the situation she finds herself in. A bit of naivety on the part of this particular character is believable, and the scribes have a grand old time building up both her external and internal worlds only to creatively break them down as they go on into the night.
The manipulation of space here is also most impressive. A single-location thriller is like a strange and dangerous dance, but it’s one that Flanagan seems comfortable to temper with, and for good reason. His visual language is thoroughly immersive, following the majority of Maddie’s more urgent actions on Steadicam, bringing to mind the Italian Giallo without the expected flashiness (the lighting set ups here are evocative and appropriate, but never invasive). The soundscape is also genuinely effective – and with such minimal dialogue it’s got to be – but even more impressive than the film’s technical achievements are its confrontations with cliché. Flanagan displays a certain obsession with Maddie’s material possessions and seamlessly integrates a certain number of them into her fight for survival. For example: an exceedingly loud fire alarm with bright flashing lights introduced in one of the earliest scenes is brought back in a creative way later on – and there’s even a fairly clever subversion of the old lost pet trope. Even a sequence in which the voices in Maddie’s head run through the various escape routes throughout the house is ultimately justified by the aforementioned information delivered via book jacket, though it at first serves to catch the viewer off guard when they least expect it to.
While overall, Flanagan isn’t aiming for anything more than a film that amounts to precisely the sum of its parts, there’s something to be said for it getting there in the end with such a thoroughly organic grasp on form. It’s clear from the get-go, and from his debut (I regrettably missed OCULUS but intend to fix that ASAP), that Flanagan has a lot of love for the horror genre and wishes only to contribute in positive ways to its future whilst injecting it with much-appreciated intimacy and emotional honesty. HUSH is the kind of taut home invasion thriller that the world could certainly use a little more of – that being one which understands that sometimes the only way to truly progress is to not make a big deal out of doing so, to raise awareness for genre issues of importance (in this case, strong female representation in horror is a big one) in a quiet, coherent manner. Ultimately, it makes for surprisingly thoughtful and consistently engaging Saturday night-type viewing; a film that is significantly more interesting in its technique than in its conception. Keep a look out – it may just sneak up and surprise you.