The Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House is something of a runaway success. Its use of fractured timelines and layered visuals have brought in fans who may have not cared about horror stories before the series released. While the show's success may seem like a fluke, it’s actually the product of writer-director Mike Flanagan, a guy who's been working within the genre for years; prior to releasing Hill House into the world, he directed a film called Hush that’s incredibly different but every bit as terrifying as his more recent endeavors.
While the series and the film are vastly distinct - The Haunting of Hill House is a gothic-tinged ghost story and Hush is a home invasion slasher mashup - they’re both heavy on scares, and they each speak to the very human fear of the dark.
If you enjoyed counting the hidden ghosts in The Haunting of Hill House, then you’ll appreciate Flanagan’s nuanced approach to the slasher genre in Hush, and you’ll definitely start making sure your doors are locked at night.
If you're seeing a horror movie made in the last 10 years, chances are good it's full of big scares that come out of nowhere. For the most part those scares don't give a lasting impression, to really scare audiences a director needs to create a tense atmosphere that viewers sit in for the entirety of the film. In an interview with Bloody Disgusting, director Mike Flanagan explained how he approached Hush with the intention to make the terror last as long as possible:
For me it’s about creating and sustaining tension for as long as possible, and I’m not generally interested in allowing that tension to be deflated, especially by a jump scare... I think the far better approach is to work with the audience to create tension together. Give them enough ingredients to activate their imagination, and let them come along for the ride. Utilize negative space, darkness, and your camera to create opportunities for them to imagine (and thus fear) what COULD happen, as opposed to focusing entirely on what DOES.
Hush follows Maddie Young (Kate Siegel), a deaf author who's in a deadly game of cat and mouse with an anonymous killer stalking her through her rural home. Director Mike Flanagan picks and chooses when he wants the audience to experience Maddie's affliction as a way to ratchet up the suspense.
A few minutes into the film, the unnamed killer murders one of Maddie's neighbors right outside her home as she cooks dinner. The woman bangs on the door as the killer stabs into her but Maddie doesn't hear a thing. This establishes Maddie will never be able to know exactly where the killer is, an idea that's underscored when he follows her through her house and takes photos of her on her own phone before sending them to her via iMessage.
What Maddie can and can't hear plays a major role throughout the film, and in one of the most surreal sequences she walks away from the killer as he bangs on a window that's directly behind her. The audience can see it happening, but there's no audio.
There are a lot of great choices made on the production side of Hush, but one of the most important things Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel (the duo co-wrote the film together) did was hide the antagonist's backstory from the audience.
In the credits John Gallagher Jr.'s character is listed as "The Man," and because Maddie can't have a full conversation with him he never gives one of those "you and I aren't so different" speeches. Towards the end of the second act - when Gallagher's character does meet someone he can chat with - he dishes out so many lies it quickly becomes obvious whatever he says can't be trusted.
This lack of a backstory makes the character much scarier. Once a villain's motivations are explained, they lose their power. Not only does the character's lack of an MO make him more enigmatically terrifying, it also makes him more realistic, which gives the film even more weight.
Hush takes place over the course of a single evening in rural Alabama. After the 20 minute mark the only thing that illuminates the film is moonlight and the occasional flashlight.
The film doesn't just use the darkness to keep the killer hidden; it employs shadows to make the viewer search each frame for every possibility. Even when nothing's lurking in the corners of a room, the audience is never quite sure all is well.
After the premiere of the film co-writer Kate Siegel (who also plays Maddie) broke down how she and the crew got around in the dark throughout filming:
Moving around in that space in the dark was all right. It was much like the sound design, when it’s actually 50 layers of sound. In order to shoot darkness, it’s actually seven or eight lights that are creating a sense of darkness and our blocking was very specific. We could work it all out with all the lights on, then we would turn the lights off and hope for the best.