Saturday, April 9, 2016

On Netflix: HUSH (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Mike Flanagan. Written by Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel. Cast: John Gallagher Jr, Kate Siegel, Michael Trucco, Samantha Sloyan, Emma Graves. (R, 82 mins)

In an era when hardly a week goes by without some new indie horror movie being an alleged game-changer that causes The Fanboy Who Cried Classic to overhype a completely unworthy film and anoint its writer and/or director the next "Master of Horror," Mike Flanagan has very quietly become one of the very few (Adam Wingard is also a big talent to watch) who deserves the fawning accolades. After a couple of little-seen festival titles in the early 2000s and the 2011 indie fright film ABSENTIA, Flanagan broke out with the 2014 sleeper OCULUS, an imaginative supernatural horror film co-produced by Blumhouse and, of all companies, WWE Studios. While not a blockbuster, it managed to generate a nice profit for distributor Relativity Media, who picked it up for next to nothing. OCULUS has already become a cult film, and it led to Flanagan being handed OUIJA 2, the sequel to the 2014 WITCHBOARD pseudo-remake. It's probably not the best venue for his talents, but it's a major-studio movie and everybody's got bills to pay. Prior to OCULUS' release, Flanagan was already at work on two other films: BEFORE I WAKE, which was shot in late 2013 and has been left in limbo due to Relativity's financial woes, and HUSH, an ultra low-budget Blumhouse production shot in secret over three weeks in 2014. HUSH--not to be confused with the late '90s Jessica Lange/Gwyneth Paltrow bomb--generated a lot of buzz at this year's SXSW and was acquired by Netflix, where it's just premiered as a streaming exclusive.

Co-written with his wife and OCULUS co-star Kate Siegel and shot in such a stealth manner to avoid the meddling of a studio they feared would make too many demands, starting with replacing Siegel in the lead role, Flanagan conceived HUSH after a dinner conversation with Siegel where they both expressed their love for the classic 1967 thriller WAIT UNTIL DARK. Wanting to make the kind of nailbiter with a protagonist in a similar situation as Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman terrorized by three criminals led by a drug-addled and insane Alan Arkin, Flanagan and Siegel conceived a story centered on a deaf-mute woman stalked by vicious killer. On the surface, HUSH might seem like a late-to-the-party home invasion thriller that should've come out around the time of THEM (ILS) or THE STRANGERS, or at the very latest, THE PURGE, but it's the best film of its type since Adam Wingard's surprisingly great YOU'RE NEXT back in 2013. By making the target unable to hear or speak the filmmakers are able to approach things from a different perspective. As blocked mystery writer Maddie Young (Siegel) struggles to complete her second book (for which she has seven possible endings and hates all of them), Flanagan establishes several things: the layout of her house, in a secluded area well off the main road; the brief flashes of seemingly minor details, every one of which will be important by the time the end credits roll; and what it's like to be in Maddie's head. Deaf and mute since a bout of meningitis when she was 13, Maddie is a year out of a bad relationship and seemingly accepting of being alone. In a signed and subtitled Facetime chat with her sister (Emma Graves), Maddie explains "Isolation chose me." As Maddie goes about her routine, unsuccessfully trying to cook a new dish and unable to come up with the words to finish her book, Flanagan frequently lets the sound drop out to experience Maddie's world from her POV. In a way, Netflix picking this up spares viewers from watching it in theater, where idiot audiences would no doubt be gabbing away during these important, mood-establishing expository scenes, though with an attentive and appreciative audience, this would be a hell of a crowd movie.

Silence is all Maddie has come to know, and it prevents her from hearing her nearest neighbor (Samantha Sloyan) screaming for help and banging on the doors and windows while Maddie has her back turned, doing the dishes. As Maddie obliviously cleans, her neighbor is stabbed multiple times by a masked killer (10 CLOVERFIELD LANE's John Gallagher Jr), who quickly figures out that Maddie is deaf and decides to have some sadistic fun with her. He sneaks into the house while she's on her laptop, lounging on the couch. He grabs her phone from the kitchen counter and sends her text messages on her laptop consisting of photos he's just taken of her sitting on the couch. Terrified, she gets up to see the sliding door going outside is open.  Getting up to close it, she sees him standing on the back patio. He shuts off the power going into the house, leaving Maddie with no wi-fi, no electricity, and no way to text or message anyone for help. With no rhyme or reason for his actions ever established--and the film works just fine without any--he has made it his mission to terrorize her. He reminds her from outside that it doesn't matter where she hides, she'll never hear him breaking in and he can come in anytime he wants. He's just gonna fuck with her by making her wait.

The hopelessness of Maddie's situation is frightening enough, but what makes HUSH work so well is that she refuses to be a victim. In what should be a star-making performance (she gets a possibly inside-jokey "introducing" credit even though she's been in several movies, including a previous one from Flanagan), Siegel immediately establishes herself as a the next-in-line to the Jamie Lee Curtis scream queen crown without even uttering a peep (except for one brief scene where she's playing out her escape options using the voice in her head). Siegel's Maddie in an instantly iconic horror heroine, one who's perhaps withdrawn from the world to an extent but finds it deep within herself to fight like hell, and the various ways she gets the edge on the killer over the course of HUSH's relentless 80 minutes are smart and plausible. Flanagan never asks the audience to make ridiculous leaps in logic or plot convenience. His mapping out of HUSH is precise and methodical and the occasional bursts of gore and splatter are practical, squishy, and wet. Even the few bits of humor are dark and merciless (watch the cruel way Flanagan has Maddie inadvertently screw up her chance to be rescued). He lays down the ground rules and sticks to them, chiefly the way much of the film plays out dialogue-free in order to experience it as Maddie does. Every bit the top-shelf nailbiter like the one that inspired it, HUSH is a terrific thriller, one of 2016's best films, and one that's going to find a huge audience on Netflix. There's too much ball-cradling sycophancy in horror fandom these days, and it's too hard to take people seriously every horror movie causes them to break out into another rendition of "Everything is Awesome!" So bestow all the accolades you want on the Eli Roths and the Ti Wests, and the V/H/Ss, THE ABCs OF DEATHs, the STARRY EYESs and the GOODNIGHT MOMMYs: Mike Flanagan is the real deal.

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