Director Mike Flanagan introduced his second feature film, Hush, at the Alamo Drafthouse screening I attended this weekend saying, "this screening that you're seeing, here in this theater, is the best one so far." Aside from the noxious combination of the Drafthouse's pizza and beer-infused seat cushions, and 100 people who had been sweating buckets in Texas all day, it was easy to see what he meant. The theater was perfect for a horror movie — pitch black, all screen, not an extra square foot of space. The sound was incredible, and Flanagan's competent but unsurprising home invasion thriller became a physical, exhilarating experience in that setting.
Sound is crucial to Hush, which takes its name from its deaf and mute protagonist, a YA thriller writer named Maddie (played by the film's co-writer Kate Siegel). Maddie lives alone in the woods (as people in horror movies tend to) and her only connections to the outside world are a friendly neighbor who's learning to sign (though Maddie can read lips) and Skype dates with her sister in New York. She's struggling to finish her second novel, as the voices in her head are whispering seven different endings for the book.
A woods-wandering, masked killer is tipped off about Maddie's situation when he slams her dead neighbor against her patio's french doors and she stays curled up in her armchair, typing away. The standard home invasion nightmare starts with a bump in the night or a "probably just the wind" and Flangan smartly plays up the suspense of whether or not Maddie is even going to realize the guy is there.
sound is crucial in hush
The killer's face is revealed much earlier than expected — about 10 minutes after he first strolls into Maddie's house. As he drops the mask, he ominously repeats a line taken from Maddie's sister in a Skype conversation that he overheard: "It's not good for you to be out there all alone, Squish." It's the second really good trick that Flanagan plays with his conceit, but it's also — unintentionally, perhaps — a laugh-out-loud funny face reveal.
The choice to cast John Gallagher Jr. as a deranged killer — he's still perhaps best known for playing the frumpiest of adorable workplace crushes in Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom — is incredibly distracting. If you didn't watch Sorkin's short-lived disasterpiece, I'll liken this mask drop to Adam Driver's in The Force Awakens (at least we knew to expect Driver months in advance).
The voices in Maddie's head walk her through her options for survival, noting "he has the advantage, he can hear you." A lady-home-alone movie that leans on a genuine strategic mismatch — rather than merely the vulnerability of the female body — is refreshing, and ultimately a lot more dynamic. Long stretches of the film past in virtual silence, with just a dull throb that makes it feel like the theater is underwater, or floating in space, with no way to find one's bearings. While it at first seems obvious that Maddie should be petrified of the fact that she can't hear her pursuer, Flanagan flips the script by pointing out that she's impervious to traditional jump scares and the blood-churning feeling of hearing boots pound towards her. She calmly prepares for the film's final showdown while the villain takes ear-shattering whacks at the glass door with an ax.
flanagan doesn't rely on the gendered tropes of this kind of story
It's much more unpleasant to be the person with working ears in this story. Maddie's fire alarm has to be impossibly loud, so that its vibrations will wake her if she's asleep. When the decibel levels reached that point in the theater it had an immersive effect that felt earned. The experience in the theater was near-constant panic — when it was silent, one craves the contextual noise; when the sound came back, you miss the focus-enabling silence.
The stranger-in-the-woods-with-a-crossbow set-up isn't new, and there are plenty of moments that make it obvious that Flanagan is a big fan of Adam Wingard's 2011 indie horror film You're Next, in which household objects exist as part of an enormous, ruthless, Rube Goldberg machine. Flanagan hangs about a dozen Chekhov guns on the wall, which diminishes the payoff of each, and the deus ex machina shenanigans he pulls are obnoxiously typical. There's an awful lot here you can see coming a mile away.
And yet, I still spent the full two hours in seat-clutching terror. I can't imagine that would have been the case if I'd watched Hush on a laptop screen or Chromecasted into my living room, with comforting background chatter and neighbor-respecting TV volume. When Hush comes to Netflix on April 8th, it will find a wider audience than it would in a limited theater run, but it's a little sad to think about what viewers will miss out on.