Silence is golden in “Hush,” one of the more inspired concoctions to emerge from the busy Blumhouse horror-thriller assembly line in recent years. Reuniting producer Jason Blum with his “Oculus” director Mike Flanagan, this simple cat-and-mouse game gets a big boost from a novel premise — the heroine is deaf — only to lose ground with a familiar follow-through and downright pedestrian third act. It would be a challenge to sell the pic’s admirably modest virtues to multiplex auds, making Netflix (which nabbed rights prior to the SXSW fest bow) an ideal venue to connect with genre fans able to appreciate the effort despite the flaws.
Maddie (Kate Siegel) lives a quiet life in a secluded house in the woods, with only a feline friend (lovingly dubbed “Bitch”) and the occasional drop-in from a chummy local (Samantha Sloyan) for company. That isolation provides the perfect environment to finish her next novel and the ideal setting for a roaming homicidal maniac to attack. Enter exactly such a masked man (John Gallagher Jr.), who promptly severs Maddie’s few connections with the outside world and begins to toy with her both physically and psychologically. (In the film’s eeriest scene, the unnamed tormentor snags Maddie’s cell phone and texts pictures he’s snapped without her knowledge directly to the laptop she’s using.)
What he doesn’t count on is Maddie’s ability to fight back, a formidable inner strength the film portrays as an asset she only discovers she has when she’s put to the test. Their back-and-forth is initially gripping — the upper hand credibly shifts from one scene to the next — but eventually devolves into standard survival-thriller territory.
“Oculus” remains one of the best Blumhouse films (though it was an acquisition, not a production), perfectly suited to the company’s fiscally conscious approach of keeping action limited largely to a single location. “Hush” — co-scripted by Flanagan and Siegel — feels even leaner (if not necessarily meaner) and doesn’t aspire to the same level of ambition or inventiveness, but its humble meat-and-potatoes quality is bolstered by the unique conceit of Maddie’s character. Like “Wait Until Dark” before it, “Hush” places a character with a perceived handicap at the center of a tense thriller and showcases both the heroine’s vulnerabilities and unexpected advantages.
It’s no surprise that most of the action unfolds without dialogue, and that setup provides Flanagan an opportunity to play with sound in creative ways — dropping out audio entirely to put us into Maddie’s shoes, or delivering a sudden jolt when appropriate. Bursts of loud noise are a genre cliche, but rarely used as effectively, or purposefully, as they are here.
Tech credits are strong across the board, from Flanagan’s own concise cutting (he keeps the action moving at such a steady clip that the film’s pre-credits running time clocks in under 80 minutes) to James Kniest’s fluid camerawork, Elizabeth Boller’s cozy production design and the Newton Brothers’ alternately tense and soaring score.
Although the lead role seems tailor-made for a hearing-impaired actress (despite one needless fantasy sequence with dialogue), Siegel’s likable perf keeps the audience on her side and highlights Maddie’s knack for thinking on her feet. Gallagher is even better as the mysteriously motivated antagonist — a twisted psychopath who appears to enjoy mind games with the same fetishistic pleasure he derives from physical violence.