I recently watched two home-invasion horror/thrillers that focused on homeowners with significant sensory impairment: "Don't Breathe," about a blind military veteran who lives alone in a broken-down part of Detroit, and "Hush," about a deaf author (who also can't speak) who lives in the woods with only a cat and a few neighbors for company. "Hush" is the superior film, not least because it doesn't go for over-the-top shockeroos but instead focuses on the basics of a prolonged but suspenseful cat-and-mouse pursuit.
That said, "Don't Breathe" boasts sharp performances from "13 Reasons Why" star Dylan Minnette and Jane Levy, who went from the smart sitcom "Suburgatory" to the grisly horror of Fede Alvarez's "Evil Dead" remake without missing a beat. Alvarez also directed "Don't Breathe," and the newer film shares the remake's willingness to take the audience to uncomfortable places. As the vet, whose mind has been twisted by sorrow, Stephen Lang gives a chilling and very physical performance. It's tautly directed and well acted, and not too predictable, but its secrets end up being perhaps a bit more unsavory than they needed to be.
The twist of making the homeowner in a home-invasion thriller the villain and the invaders the protagonists is interesting. Nonetheless, as a Detroit-area native, I was sad to see yet another stereotypical depiction of urban rot. Detroit seems to have been chosen as a setting (I doubt the film was shot there), as it has been so many times before, to convey blight and emptiness. Within the horror genre, "It Follows" used (actual) Detroit locations in a more nuanced and less cliche way.
"Hush" may or may not be writer-director Mike Flanagan's best film so far. You could make an argument for "Ouija: Origin of Evil," which is much more lavishly produced than the bare-bones, pedal-to-the-metal "Hush," which looks like it was filmed on a budget of about a buck twenty-five, some fake blood, and a few donated prosthetic and makeup effects (albeit very good ones). As others have noted, Flanagan knows two things that are key to making good horror: 1) Developing actual characters, about whom we have actual feelings, matters; 2) It's a very good sign if partway into the movie we'd be enjoying it even if it weren't a horror movie, and if it's actually hard to tell what genre it belongs to. (Another good example of both points: Ti West's "The Innkeepers.")
"Hush" thumbs its nose at some horror and home-invasion conventions while adhering, in a lively and imaginative way, to others. Two moments in the film are standouts for me. In the first, John Gallagher Jr.'s truly upsetting psycho killer threatens the life of a cat, with delightfully unexpected results. In the second, the killer thinks he has Kate Siegel's deaf fiction writer, Maddie Young, right where he wants her: His hands are, at long last, around her throat. Though we pretty much know what the outcome of the scene will be, Flanagan uses a flash of images to suddenly add great poignancy and weight to what might otherwise have played out as a routine thriller finale.
Siegel took on a great challenge in playing a deaf woman who also can't speak, due to an adolescent case of bacterial meningitis. She co-wrote the screenplay with Flanagan, her partner in life as well as filmmaking. So this is very much the story both of them wanted to tell, told in the way they preferred. "Hush" has much in common with "Wait Until Dark," "The Strangers," "You're Next," and other noteworthy home-invasion films, but it avoids falling into some common traps of the subgenre. For one thing, it doesn't treat human lives as worthless, as many movies with much higher body counts do.
"Hush" also refuses to turn the main character's mistreatment at the hands of a monstrous villain into an excuse for all-out, stomach-turning gore -- the kind of thing we saw, or maybe turned away from, in "The Last House on the Left," "I Spit On Your Grave," and other such bloody revenge fantasies. Maddie needs to defend herself, and that does mean trying to harm her assailant, but she isn't a merciless sadist (unlike her attacker). She's just a traumatized woman trying to survive.
At first I questioned the calm note the film ends on, thinking that someone who had been through what Maddie had would be hypervigilant, unable to relax for even a moment, and would make a beeline for the approaching police cars. But, after some reflection, I'm not sure I know what the survivor of such an ordeal would think, feel, or do in its immediate aftermath. I do know that "Hush" provides well-matched opponents, a consistently tense mood, and a resolution that's considerably more satisfying than those of many thrillers that operate on a similar premise.