Mike Flanagan’s first film for Netflix is a deft twist on the home invasion drama, centering on the standoff between Maddie (Kate Siegel), a mute-deaf woman who lives alone, and The Man (John Gallagher Jr), a slasher who tries to kill her after disposing of Sarah (Samantha Sloyan), her nearest neighbor. Like The Open House and Bird Box, Hush forms a kind of Netflix pastoral, opening in the midst of the pine-clad, mountainous landscapes that have become so integral to the platform’s particular look and address. Like both of those films, too, Hush outlines a mode of horror in which sight is both accentuated and surpassed, gesturing towards Netflix, in turn, as a platform that is both acutely attuned to the visual, but also reflective of a world in which mass media has become less and less tethered to sight as its primary sensory anchor. While Netflix may address the eyes, it doesn’t compel the eyes, or demand all the other senses are subordinated to the eyes, in the manner of a traditional cinematic experience. As a result, its trademark landscapes, and their almost impossibly hi-def contours, often seem to take visual experience to its very apex, only to recede into the backdrop of stories that are focused on deprivileging and destabilizing sight.
In its own way, Hush is one of the most compelling of those stories, since you’d assume that the visual command of a slasher, and the visual experience of the audience, would only be intensified by a deaf-mute victim. For a brief moment, the film seems to be heading in this direction, as Flanagan amplifies the spaces behind Maddie as she moves about her nightly routines, and arranges many of his shots so that she is backed by the huge windows that open to the woods outside. Throughout these early scenes, Flanagan also strikes an artful balance between the silence of Maddie’s perspective and the sound of the audience’s perspective, often opting for a series of ambient tones – rumbling noises, panpipe music, abstract bursts of Foley – that work both as noises and as contours to the looming silence.
Nevertheless, it quickly becomes clear that Maddie’s inability to hear the Man robs him of much of his power, both in terms of her immediate interactions with him, and his command over the film as a whole. Not only is his face mask much more naturalistic than normal, and much less concealing of his face, but he exposes his entire body very early on, rather than emerging gradually from the surrounding ambience as tends to occur in traditional slasher films. It’s only a matter of time before he reveals his face, too, while he’s quite pragmatic about his agenda, and equally matter-of-fact about not having a particularly pressing motive. One of the eeriest scenes occurs when he sends Maddie photographs of herself, from her own phone, to her laptop. The first of these photos come from about five minutes before, while the most recent is taken as she is perusing the laptop itself. In another kind of film, this simultaneity would be part of a slow build, but the moment that the slasher’s shots of Maddie segue into real time here he presents himself, without waiting for her to obsess over his presence or try to compute him on the fringes of the room. Indeed, so compressed is the Man’s emergence into Maddie’s consciousness and spatial awareness that it the film could conceivably end about thirty minutes in, so dramatically has he announced himself.
In the process, the opening act of Hush made me realise that, while the slasher might often be associated with sight, the first and most crucial parts of his presence tend to be auditory. In particular, the slasher’s traversal of the first threshold between himself and the victim, and the outermost thresholds of the suburban home, tends to be auditory. Devoid of those gradual auditory disruptions that typically precede his first visual appearance, the Man here has no choice but to appear almost immediately, a decision that robs him of the cloak of anonymity and mystique that can make regular slashers so unsettling. More critically, perhaps, Maddie’s situation robs the slasher of the power of his voice, and the power of his breath, the two vehicles through which the slasher typically transitions from the auditory to visual plane, and signals his total command over the visual plane of the film in the process.
To some extent, that clearly works to the slasher’s advantage, since with no sound, it is impossible for Maddie to tell whether he is still outside or whether he has moved inside. Yet it also makes Maddie somewhat oblivious to the display that the slasher has orchestrated for her, a surprising amount of which depends upon his ability to curate and manipulate sound. Not being able to hear him, even when she knows he is there, allows her to maintain more calm than a regular victim, as evinced in several key scenes where she knows where he is, or even sees him coming, but doesn’t quite pass into the final threshold of fear – the most debilitating threshold – because she can’t hear his approach. Just as importantly, she’s not debilitated by the small noises that she makes either, noises that might freeze another victim in their tracks until they were caught. It is as if her inability to hear the slasher pre-emptively exposes him, or forces him to pre-emptively expose himself, making him less scary – thought still threatening – and quickly pivoting Hush more in the direction of a heist film. Having compressed every slasher trope to the first thirty minutes, the Man simply tells Maddie – she can lip-read – that he is going to either wait for her to come out, grow tired, or kill herself, forcing her into the role of a captive rather than a traditional slasher victim.
Like Happy Death Day, Better Watch Out, Gerald’s Game and so many other recent horror films, Hush therefore enters a kind of post-suspense space, as if interested to contemplate the various ways in which suspense might be attenuated or exhausted in a digital horror ecology, and on Netflix as a platform in particular. At first, the Man assumes that, as slasher, he has the advantage, since his pleasure comes from the prospect of silencing women, and he has now actually found a woman who is already silenced. Yet he underestimates how much of his capacity to generate fear stems from being heard – or, rather, how much of his power stems from his ability to subordinate all the other senses to sight. Since Maddie has been unable to hear since she was thirteen, she has stopped subordinating sound to sight, while the fact that she can’t hear any of the sounds that the slasher attempts to subordinate to his gaze means that she doesn’t conform to the spectacle that he is trying to engineer. Rather than finding a victim who is preprepared for his sensory labour, as it were, the slasher instead finds a victim who disrupts his sensory labour, and the sight-bound sensory hierarchy that he is trying to insist upon, robbing him – literally – of his voice in the process.
I’ve often wondered about how a horror film would look if it were actually told from the slasher’s perspective, alive to the suspense that a slasher must also feel – or at least alive to the idea of suspense as something that might be shared by slasher and victim, rather than merely being masterminded by the slasher. Ever since Andrew Wingard’s You’re Next, there has been a renewed interest in exploring this idea, which arguably finds its fullest expression in the lasy act of Hush. For once it emerges that Maddie’s sensorium resists the sensory hierarchy of the slasher, it also becomes clear that she can take control of the situation if she wants to as well, effectively putting her in the position of the slasher, and assignining the majority of the film’s suspense to her role as slasher, rather than victim. Not only does she absorb the ingenuity of the Man – his methods, his weapons, his strategies – but she adopts his gaze at the critical juncture of the film, gazing back at him through the window with exactly the coldly assured command of the visual field that he has been aiming to achieve. No surprise, then, that she uses both sight and sound against him in the closing scenes, using a torch to lure him away from the house and spraying wasp repellent in his eyes, before deafening him with her custom-made fire-alarm, which is loud enough to send out vibrations capable of waking her in case of fire, but too dangerous for the regular ear.
During these final scenes, Maddie also turns the Man’s earlier communications with her against him too. The point of his early photographs and phone interactions with her is clear, as are the silent conversations where he encourages her to read his lips through the door. In both cases, he suggests, the media that she uses are inherently debilitated by her lack of hearing, since it means that she is incapable of properly gathering her senses under the aegis of sight, ensuring that his gaze and command will always be stronger. By the end of the film, however, she has reinvented both lip-reading and digital media as spaces where the classical cinematic and slasher optic – the idea that the eyes are the guardians of all the senses – can most be most effectively and eloquently dismantled. Like so many of the other sensory deprivation dramas that have preoccupied recent horror cinema – Lights Out, Don’t Breathe, A Quiet Place, Bird Box – it emerges that the real sensory deprivation occurs when we prioritise sight above all else, and subsume everything else into sight. The result is a post-visual horror film, relising sight only as something to be displaced and set adrift among the other senses, rather than the moment at which senses cohere into a slasher sensorium.