The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today we're examining Hush, which offers a smartly written take on home invasion horror movies.
In the sphere of our Deep Cuts series, Hush is a fairly recent film. Released in April 2016, it’s one of the less-familiar movies from director Mike Flanagan - who is probably better known in the horror genre for films like Oculus and the recent adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game. Hush, a long-touted “secret project” of Flanagan’s, was a script he co-wrote with his wife Kate Siegel (who also stars in the film), and originally premiered at SXSW before being released on Netflix. Siegel plays Maddie Young, a deaf-mute novelist who lives a somewhat secluded existence out in the middle of nowhere and who becomes the unsuspecting target of a masked killer (John Gallagher Jr.). Cut off from communication from the outside world and isolated in an inadvertent trap of her own making, Maddie must rely on her willfulness and ingenuity in order to survive the night.
There’s always been something romantic about the concept of self-imposed solitude. When you picture living alone in a cabin in the woods, more idyllic imagery comes to mind rather than anything ominous. When we first meet Maddie, we have every indication that up until now, her life has been a remotely peaceful one. She’s working on her latest novel. She’s cooking - well, struggling to cook - a complicated recipe for roast. She periodically hangs out with her best friend and neighbor, Sarah (Samantha Sloyan), helping the other woman to brush up on her American Sign Language. But we also never leave the boundary of Maddie’s property, thus adding to the sense of remoteness. In spite of the halcyon setting, Maddie’s managed to lull herself into a misguided sense of security - but she never could’ve predicted she’d be the singular focus of a man set on terrorizing her.
“The Man," which is what the movie refers to him as - we never learn his name over the course of the plot, and we don’t really need to - seems to take particular delight in tormenting Maddie, especially once he realizes she’s deaf. The “hiding in plain sight” technique is a commonly used one in horror movies; the killer stands just outside the victim’s periphery, narrowly avoiding detection except where the audience is concerned. In Hush, this means of menace is heightened by the fact that Maddie simply can’t hear her intimidator. He can literally stand behind her, tapping his knife against his hand, and she remains unaware. It’s an agonizing experience for us, the third-party viewer. We want so badly to warn Maddie about what’s to come, and yet all we can do is watch, helpless, like an unwitting target of the Man’s machinations. Fortunately for us, and for Maddie, it doesn’t take long after she realizes she’s in a killer’s crosshairs to decide to fight back - and keep fighting.At first, she tries to appease the Man, and leaves a message written in her lipstick for him on the window. She won’t tell anyone what happened, she didn’t see his face. She even uses the excuse of a fake boyfriend on his way home as a misdirect. If he won’t listen to her, maybe he’ll be threatened by the arrival of another man. The Man knows this to be a lie, however, having eavesdropped on one of Maddie’s FaceTime calls with her sister earlier. Oh, he’s not going to kill her right away, he assures her. He simply wants to break her until she’s pleading for death instead. He wants to consume her thoughts until she’s as fixated on him as he is on her. In fact, when Maddie chooses to turn her back on him, ignoring his taunts, the Man goes into a rage, banging on the window in vain. It’s reminiscent of what happens when a bully is dismissed. They’re counting on being able to get under someone’s skin, to feed on their distress, and when they’re not given the satisfaction of victory, they erupt. And while Maddie initially positions herself in a place of deference with her first lipsticked message, eventually she takes to taunting him right back - with words of defiance this time, inked in her own blood: DO IT, COWARD.
It’s clear early on that Maddie is not the Man’s first victim. At the beginning of the film, he murders her friend Sarah, dumping her body outside her window as a scare tactic, but there’s plenty of evidence that he’s preyed on other women before. And yet, because of her disability, Maddie is both differently fetishized and extremely underestimated by the Man. He’s definitely not expecting her to fight back as hard as she does; he also hasn’t envisioned an outcome where she outlasts him. But Maddie, as a novelist, has self-professed “writer brain.” She can picture at least seven different endings in her mind, and most of them end in her death. It’s why she continues to try various means of escape - distracting the Man with her car alarm, tracking his footsteps using vibrations, throwing a flashlight into the woods so he thinks she’s trying to flee. And it’s why she eventually turns to sound to incapacitate him, using her specialized loud smoke alarm to stun him. Even when she thinks her life is over, she takes a moment to type a few phrases at the end of her manuscript. Her story needs to be told, and she’s the one who’s going to be telling it the right way regardless of how she's discovered later.
Hush is a brilliant and refreshing film, not only for its unique take on the “home invasion” trope but also for how it elevates its heroine - who doesn’t overcome her attacker in spite of her disabilities, but because of them. It’s not merely a horror story but a tale of survival, depicted somewhat simplistically but also powerfully. Originally debuting to much-deserved fanfare and high critical praise at the time of its release, the fact that it’s on Netflix is for sure an upside - it means that anyone can stumble across its greatness at any point. Smartly written with a courageous and capable lead, Hush is a masterwork of cat-and-mouse suspense.