Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: John Gallagher Jr., Kate Siegel, Michael Trucco, Samantha Sloyan
Running Time: 87 mins
When a new idea, or at least an idea that hasn’t been done to death, comes along in a genre as prone to stagnation as horror, it’s exciting. Doubly so if it’s a really good idea, and HUSH has one such idea at its core. HUSH also comes with the promise of a less-is-more approach, with a core cast you could count on one hand, a single location, and a brisk hour and twenty minute runtime. Put simply, the cards were stacked in favor of Adam Wingard’s latest film to be an out-of-nowhere hit, maybe even an instant classic. So why then, moments after I watched the film, is there a tang of frustration, even disappointment in my mouth? HUSH is a film rife with opportunities for organic, action-driven storytelling, but it ultimately doesn’t live up to those opportunities as well as it rightly should. To add salt to the wound, the rest of the movie is good. Really, really good. So good that when it falls just short of utter perfection, it becomes more frustrating than if the movie had just been mediocre overall.
The premise is fantastically simple, but full of opportunity. Maddie, a deaf-mute writer living in relative seclusion in her home in the woods, is stalked by a crossbow-wielding killer in the classic “he’s ultimately just some guy who’s into killing folks” mold. It’s the classic slasher formula but with one fantastic wrinkle: the main victim can neither hear her killer approaching, nor scream for help. Think of the opportunities that that premise holds: two silent characters in a dialogue-free game of cat and mouse, all storytelling and characterization conveyed entirely through action. No dialogue. No exposition spouting. Just pure organic storytelling. Now that’s an enticing idea.
Unfortunately, HUSH fails to take advantage of this opportunity to the extent is could have. Firstly, the killer sheds his mask and starts talking relatively early on, instantly becoming less threatening in the process. The masked, silent killer, their emotions and very humanity obscured by a hockey mask or William Shatner’s white-painted visage is something of a cliche by now, admittedly. But like a lot of tropes, it’s around for a reason. The image of the unreadable, silent killer is one that instinctively gets under our skin, and while a maskless slasher villain certain can be done, HUSH’s slightly slackjawed killer isn’t the one to do it. And to make matters worse, once the mask comes off he starts getting chatty, at times loudly ruminating on his next move. Then the neighbor’s hunky boyfriend shows up to give the killer someone else to talk to, and finally an internal monologue device is employed in a climactic scene, giving Maddie a voice with which to plot her next course of action, loudly and with no subtlety.
This is not what we were promised. This is not what this movie should be doing. The characters should not be telling us what they’re going to do next, walking the audience through so many of their decisions like schoolchildren on a day trip to the local zoo. HUSH should be an exercise, nay a poster child, for characterization and storytelling through action, through subtle cues. Granted, the film isn’t devoid of this, and its best segments are the ones that occur in blessed dialogue-free silence. But the fact that it isn’t the main feature is frustrating, and feels like a betrayal of what this film could have been: a taut, tense horror thriller that gets you invested in the characters and situation with minimal spoken dialogue.
And this betrayal would be less frustrating if the film weren’t an all-around solid modern slasher flick even when removed from the central conceit. Maddie is perhaps one of the most interesting horror movie protagonists in recent memory. She’s understandably terrified by her situation, as anyone would be, but she’s also resourceful and tough. Odds are if you ever find yourself yelling “now’s your chance, sock him in the face!!” at the screen, that’s exactly what she’s about to do. She’s a fighter, but also very human. None of this would count for much if actress Kate Siegel, who co-wrote the film with Wingard, didn’t absolutely nail the role. But she does, and HUSH ends up winning major points for a kickass protagonist.
The film also builds a lot of its suspense from actual tension rather than cheap jumps, of which there are one or two. But more often, the edge-of-your-seat tension comes from slow dread as the audience sees the killer stalking about in the background behind an oblivious Maddie. Really, some of HUSH’s scariest moments come before she even realizes the danger she’s in.
HUSH is so close, so tantalizingly close to being an absolute slam-dunk of a horror film, but its shortcomings ultimately just can’t be ignored. Where the film should have been all about dialogue-free characterization and storytelling, it suddenly chimes up, with both Maddie and the killer telling when they should be showing. HUSH should have been the ultimate “show don’t tell” movie, but the killer’s de-masking and Maddie’s sudden inner monologue feel like they rob us of so much of what this movie could have been. It also becomes just slightly preoccupied with faking the audience out in the last half hour, presenting us with a potentially shocking twist that turns out to be bogus, and then seemingly gearing up for a spectacularly interesting and badass ending that it ultimately ducks out of.
I think HUSH will find the most success with Netflix viewers who find it in their queue with no knowledge of what it is beforehand, and go in completely blind. I watched the trailer and knew the premise going in, which set my expectations up for things that the film flat-out did not deliver. You could say that’s on me, and you’d be partially right. But still, HUSH’s premise gave it such a grreat opportunity for the kind of storytelling we see so rarely in films these days. The rest of the film is rock solid, but its failure to capitalize on that opportunity to the degree it could have made it as frustrating to watch as it was tense.