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In the pantheon of home invasion horror movies, "Hush" offers one unique hook: the woman struggling to survive the night is deaf. It’s only a slight conceptual twist on "Wait Until Dark," the 1967 thriller with Aubrey Hepburn as a blind women facing similar circumstances. "Hush" doesn’t resemble that movie much aside from its main fear factor. Writer-director Mike Flanagan’s creepy follow-up to 2013’s first-rate "Oculus" gives the killer a built-in advantage over his prey, while she spends the movie figuring out how to perceive his attacks. Whereas "Oculus" featured a haunted mirror that messed with its victims’ perception of the world, "Hush" offers two opposing ways of experiencing it at once.
One of the countless modestly budgeted genre efforts from producer Jason Blum’s Blumhouse model, "Hush" is a solid example of its effectiveness. With a main cast of two and one eerie cabin-in-the-woods setting, the movie is continually engaging without any fancy tricks, aside from its heroine’s relationship to her surroundings.
Maddie (newcomer Kate Siegel) is a deaf author who spends her days in isolation cranking out mystery novels, with only her neighbors providing the occasional companionship. That changes one night when a masked lunatic (John Gallagher Jr.) shows up at her home with a knife and crossbow, revealing his intentions of toying with her throughout the night until he decides it’s time to take her out.
That premise sets the stage for a shadowy thriller in which Maddie constantly bounds about her small home, darting from room to room while checking every window. Flanagan, who co-wrote the story with Siegel, gives her a terrific star-making role, in which her expressions elaborate on the mounting dread. While the creepy murderer keeps circling the house, Maddie goes from lurking in the shadows to confronting her captor with a series of inventive methods.
James Kniest’s shadowy cinematography shifts between closeups of Maddie’s face and murky exteriors that show the sheer emptiness of the surrounding landscape, making it clear that escape is not an option. Instead, Maddie must use her writerly brain to think of more constructive solutions, from original hiding spots to communicating with the psychopath by scrawling messages on the glass door of her home with lipstick.
With a title borrowed from a famous "Buffy" episode that lacks dialogue for most of its running time, "Hush" offers plenty of engaging methods for Maddie to communicate her mounting despair – including text messages and FaceTime (which sets the stage for an original riff on "he’s right behind you!" cliché) — but "Hush" never goes too far in evoking Maddie’s actual experience of her situation. Though we see her signing to a friend in a subtitled early scene, "Hush" avoids the extremes of last year’s "The Tribe," which turns sign language into a storytelling device. Even as it lets Siegel’s face do most of the talking, "Hush" eventually gives up and gives her an internal monologue, abandoning its main appealing gimmick.
Once the premise kicks into high gear, "Hush" reveals itself as a finely craved one-trick pony. Maddie’s situation doesn’t differ from countless other "final girl" scenarios, and while Gallagher Jr. has fun playing the smarmy murderer eager to toy with his would-be victim, his character barely gets defined enough to register as much more than the market standard for this kind of threat. Still, the real appeal of "Hush" stems from Flanagan’s ability to hover in Maddie’s urgent mindset, and as long as he does that the movie delivers. The expert use of sound design, fused with the Newton Brothers’ energetic score, creates a constant sense of urgency to each scene as it keeps moving forward. The liberal use of bloodshed maintains an enveloping air of danger right down to the tense finale, even if the specific outcome doesn’t offer a lot of new material.
But that’s the Blumhouse playbook for horror in a nutshell: As with "The Purge" series, "The Visit" or countless others, a lot of traditional scares unfold under the guise of a clever high concept. "Hush" isn’t as original as it looks. But when things go bump in the night and one person can’t hear them, the possibilities are endless, and this movie exploits as many as it can before running out steam.
Netflix premiered "Hush" at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. It premieres on the streaming service on April 8.