Sunday, June 5, 2016

Accessible Thrills: Netflix's Hush

Kate Siegel stars in Hush, currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Novelist Maddie Young (Kate Siegel) is living the writer's dream, holed up alone in a cozy cottage in the woods while she works on her second novel. The book, a thriller that follows on the heels of her successful debut, is almost finished but Maddie is struggling with the ending. She's started doing the traditional writer's procrastination dance: cooking ambitious dinners for herself and messing them up, phoning her sister Max (Emilia Graves) to see how she's doing, moving from desk to couch to chair to see what works, before ultimately deciding that texting her ex-boyfriend is a great idea.

Her nearest neighbours are couple Sarah and John (Samantha Sloyan and Michael Trucco), friends who regularly take a short hike through the trees to come visit her and make sure she's alive. On this day in particular, Sarah swings by to return a copy of Maddie's recently-published first book. The women chat for a bit before Sarah returns home and Maddie returns to writing self-deprecating notes to herself on her open Word document. Sarah returns a few hours later, though, this time covered in blood and tailed by a masked psycho with a crossbow. She hammers on the glass door, begging Maddie to let her in, but Maddie ignores her and continues washing dishes. A bout of bacterial meningitis in her early teens left Maddie completely deaf and, unfortunately, Sarah knows her friend can't hear her screaming. Sarah doesn't make it, but Maddie proves to be a much bigger challenge as she becomes the masked man's new target.

So begins Hush, a refreshingly straightforward slasher romp from Blumhouse Productions, the company infamous for churning out every small budget horror franchise under the sun (Insidious, Sinister, The Purge, Paranormal Activity). Written and directed by Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel, the husband and wife duo responsible for 2015's middling Oculus, the film was released exclusively to Netflix this past April. At only an hour and 21 minutes, Hush is a fast-paced cat and mouse game, focused entirely on Maddie's stand off with the man outside her house. There is no long-winded back story, there's no deus ex machina boyfriend who comes in to save her. In fact, the film makes absolutely no effort to explain why this guy is so bent on maiming our protagonist. In a move reminiscent of 1974 horror classic Black Christmas, the attacker (John Gallagher Jr.), credited only as "The Man," is just a guy who wants to murder people and Maddie seems to be a convenient target. Hush's minimalist storytelling is its greatest strength. By not biting off more than they can chew, Flanagan and Siegel allow the conflict between Maddie and The Man to take centre stage; just as it would play out in real life, deciphering motives takes a back seat and Maddie devotes her energy to trying to survive circumstances that seem genuinely hopeless.

Siegel truly carries the weight of the film. As almost 70 minutes of Hush's running time are completely void of dialogue, the film relies heavily on Siegel's ability to tell Maddie's story without words – and she delivers. Maddie is no shrinking violet and Siegel doesn't play her as one. Her character is visibly frustrated by her limitations, but also cunning, resourceful, and a force to be reckoned with. At one point Maddie cranks up the badass factor by dipping her finger into an open wound on her body and scrawling threats to her attacker on a window in blood. The Man is rattled and so he should be. As the antagonizing psychopath, Gallagher does the job but is somewhat less compelling than his intended victim. While I love that his motives are kept a mystery, we're left to wonder at some points why he continues with his rampage of terror when the odds turn against him. Gallagher plays The Man as being lucid enough to be frightened of Maddie when the chips are down and sane enough to pass for an undercover police officer for a hot second when an outsider stumbles upon the scene. These instances of seeming normalcy diminish The Man's spookiness. The anarchist psycho killer should remain a force of nature. Gallagher was decently scary but would have been scarier had we never related to his character at all.

With one set, 15 minutes of dialogue, and only five actual humans ever seen on screen, Hush takes its commitment to minimalism seriously and achieves a high degree of success by doing so. Far outpacing my expectations for a Netflix exclusive horror film, this well-executed thriller offers up realistic scares, a heady rush of adrenaline, and a stellar female lead – and, perhaps most importantly, it kept me on the edge of my seat.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario. 

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