Thursday, 15 December 2016

Movie Review: Hush (2016)



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It’s Mike Flanagan time again… even if it’s under less-than-ideal circumstances. When I reviewed Ouija: Origin Of Evil, I mentioned that Flanagan had three films released this year. Well, that may be technically true, but his second feature Before I Wake doesn’t have an Australian release date as of yet, meaning that it isn’t eligible for a review just yet. Rather than deal with another quasi-ethical dilemma like when I looked at Vaxxed, I’m going to play it safe this time around. That, and it’s apparently his weakest effort to date, and in an admitted fanboy-influenced thought pattern, I want to keep my pristine impression of the man’s filmography intact for as long as I can. Especially when the man is capable of making films like this. This is Hush.


The plot: Author Maddie (Kate Siegel), who was rendered deaf and mute from a childhood illness, is working desperately to find a fitting conclusion to her most recent book while living in a secluded house in the woods. However, a masked killer (John Gallagher Jr.), having already taken care of one of her neighbours, has now set his sights on the supposedly easy target that is Maddie. Over a very tense night, Maddie will have to fight against an enemy that has seemingly every advantage that she lacks if she wishes to stay alive.

Apart from being both the lead actor and the co-writer for the film, Kate Siegel is also Mike Flanagan’s wife and she is credited as being introduced in this film. I bring this up because, after seeing where the road of nepotism has lead audiences over the last few years with films like After Earth and even Yoga Hosers from earlier this year, the decision to cast her as the lead could have turned into something disastrous as it reads on paper. The film doesn’t take long to assuage those potential fears, as Siegel manages to do brilliantly not only at portraying someone without the ability to hear or speak (despite being neither in the real world) but also at conveying the sheer terror and pain her character experiences over the course of the film. Opposite her is Gallagher Jr. as the killer titled by the credits as simply “The Man”, who follows his last exceptional film role in 10 Cloverfield Lane as an impossibly menacing and creepy presence on screen. Even the way he walks around the house has this sadistic playfulness to it, as if his every movement is meant to show dominance and hideous power, something that he pulls off with possibly alarming ease. Samantha Sloyan as Maddie’s neighbour and friend Sarah works well at showing a certain difficulty with sign language that is at once quite humourous and close enough to reality that it manages to give a lot of credence to the main source of chills in the film itself, and Michael Trucco as John, a bystander who appears later on in the story, shows a refreshingly amount of character intelligence and guile in a very short amount of screen time.

With my aforementioned admiration for Flanagan’s output of late, the only statement may feel like the ravings of a fanboy but that doesn’t make it any less true: The main concept behind this film is fucking genius. Having a deaf and mute protagonist in a slasher film feels like an attempt to turn the silent killer staple of the genre and turn it on its head in a way that, much like the main conceit of It Follows, feels like a natural progression for the genre itself. In a cinematic landscape where filmmakers are not only content with copying the successes of the past, but copying easily the weakest aspects of those successes, seeing a horror film that is willing to take chances and try something is quite satisfying without even getting into the film proper. Not only that, on a more baseline level, the very idea of having a main character who is at the mercy of a villain who has a literal biological advantage means that this is a plot that is rife with tension-raising possibilities.

As for its execution of that idea, in contrast to similar thriller involving the manipulation of sound to create thrills Don’t Breathe, this manages to outdo even that fairly high watermark. Don’t Breathe made you conscious of every single noise, from the small creaks to the loud bangs. This film makes practically every move made by Maddie into a life-or-death situation, as she could have the killer standing behind her and she might not even know that he’s there. Not only that, take into account rather innocuous things like heavy breathing or heavy footsteps, things that she might not even be able to notice if they are loud enough to alert The Man, and the idea creeps in that she could be informing the killer of her location without even realizing it. It’s about here that a change of pants may be required if you’re going to sit through this under-80-minute film. Actually, speaking of the running time, something that slim means that there is absolutely no room for error, and that understanding shows as there isn’t a single moment of dead air in the entire production. If it isn’t setting up character or adding to the chokingly thick atmosphere, it showing that even the script for this thing is top-notch.

One of the reasons why the slasher genre, while popular, never really got the credit it deserved at times was largely a result of a key aspect of the genre itself: The killing. Specifically, the kind of sadistic killing that most slasher villains would undertake. Well, we get much the same here except it’s framed in a way that ends up highlighting why those films end up working in the first place. As much as sweetness and light is how most people see the world, there do exist people who act and think a lot like The Man does here, taking a sick pleasure in toying with lives before ending them. What makes it truly stick though is how that is played in contrast with Maddie, resulting in a film that extolls the idea that no matter how cruel people in the world may be and how vulnerable they can make us feel, they are still no match for genuine inner strength. Between how much Maddie gets injured, and how graphically, during the events of the film and a scene involving her trying to work a crossbow that is so painful to watch for all the right reasons, we get a film that is aware of the main character’s limitations… but only ends up using it to highlight how strong her character is in the face of her captor. It’s a display of power in the face of toxic masculinity that elevates this from being a simple slasher film into easily one of the most badass pieces of feminist cinema in recent memory.

All in all, it is with this feature that Mike Flanagan solidifies his position as the current king of cinematic horror. The acting is astoundingly good, with what will hopefully be the start of a very fruitful career for Kate Siegel because her performance here alone shows that she bloody deserves it, the direction is as tight as the atmosphere’s hands around the audience’s necks, the approach to horror shows a learned understanding of what makes pain itself to be scary, and the writing, apart from taking full advantage of an excellent idea for a horror film, spins it into a delivery of strength and smarts that I have no doubt will result in this going down in history as a watershed moment for feminism in horror cinema. It’s better than The Hateful Eight, as the writing here goes beyond just having witty dialogue into filling out the frame of the narrative with tremendous subtext. However, even though this is far easier to recommend to other people to check out, it doesn’t register as much adoration with me as the seamless fusion of mind-fragging weird and mind-blowing emotional intellect that is Swiss Army Man.

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