2016 | R | USA | Mike Flanagan | 87 min
Synopsis: Centered on a woman who lives alone in the woods and is inexplicably terrorized, Hush distills everything to a single effect—terror.
Hush is directed by Mike Flanagan and written by Flanagan and Kate Siegel. Siegel also stars in the film, playing the heroine, Maddie, alongside villain John Gallagher, Jr. (recently in 10 Cloverfield Lane), identified in the credits only as “The Man.”
I went into this film with virtually no expectations, watching it on the day it landed on Netflix. I was transfixed. It was terrifying from beginning to end, and the performances by Siegel and Gallagher were inspired.
The film’s plot is very simple—and that, I think, is its primary strength (and where Poe comes in, more on that later).
Maddie (Siegel) lives alone in an isolated house in the woods. An illness at age thirteen left her deaf and mute, isolating her in a still more profound way. As she says via Facetime to her sister, who’s worried about her being alone: “Isolation happened to me. I didn’t pick it.” After a brief visit from her neighbor, Sarah (Samantha Sloyan), the film focuses almost exclusively on “The Man’s” terrorizing of Maddie. He does so, at first, from outside the house, telling her he will only come in after she’s reached the point that she wishes she were dead. The film tracks their extended battle—as he seeks to victimize Maddie and she fights back.
The film sets up a single terrifying scenario—a woman utterly alone and seemingly defenseless, in the woods, away from anyone who can help her. And the film stays with that scenario throughout. Sarah makes a brief reappearance, as does her boyfriend, John (Michael Trucco), but they ultimately end up only furthering the Man’s intent to terrorize Maddie.
Hush, in short, concentrates its efforts on creating a single effect: terror. And it’s this that made me think of Poe, specifically his dictum in “The Philosophy of Composition” that an artist should begin not with “history” or some “incident of the day” or a series of “striking events” but with the “consideration of an effect.” Everything in the work of art (Poe was writing about a poem but even he recognized that his point was generalizable) should strive to create that single effect, every detail should be unified around that effect. Hush focuses unremittingly on the nightmare of being stalked by an utterly relentless killer—and it never deviates from this story. That its particular intended effect is terror would no doubt have pleased Poe, who was himself master of the tale of terror.
Indeed, Hush avoids one of the things that can derail the endeavor of a horror film to evoke sheer terror in its viewers—a kind of over-explanation of the “monster,” or of the horrifying entity at its center. When this over-explanation is particularly heavy-handed rather than evocative, it can destroy the efficacy of a film’s affective payoff. Hush brilliantly avoids this pitfall. “The Man” is never explained, and he never explains himself, a fact heightened, of course, by Maddie’s inability to talk to or hear him. He remains a force of sheer unexplained malevolence, desiring only to victimize a woman whom he seems to have chosen utterly at random. She could have been anyone—including the viewer.
The Man, rendered with chilling lack of affect by Gallagher, seems driven, in fact, by another of Poe’s theories—the perverse. As Poe said of the perverse, it marks a “mobile without motive, a motive not motivirt. Through its promptings,” Poe continues, “we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may . . . say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not.”[i] The Man has absolutely no motive for wanting to torment and kill Maddie—no motive for wanting to torment and kill anyone. Again, there is no machinery of explanation: there’s no childhood trauma, no long-forgotten kinship with his victim (he doesn’t turn out to be her brother!), nothing at all. The only window into the Man that we get are marks on his crossbow—a record of victims, perhaps.
Maddie on the other hand is a fully human character, not an impersonal force of brutality, so, of course, she fights back with every tool she has. (And Siegel is really great at making us care deeply about this character.) Interestingly, one of those tools is that she’s a writer—and while she was struggling with how to finish her latest novel when the Man showed up, she uses her creative powers to imagine different endings for her fight with the man who is preying on her. Maddie is not the typical girl of horror, falling victim to the dumb moves that inevitably get characters killed. She writes her own narrative. You’ll have to watch the film to see how human imagination and resourcefulness stack up against inhuman and unmotivated malevolence.
Here’s the trailer:
[i] Poe, “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845).