With the success of Mike Flanagan’s horror Hush released earlier this year it’s both made way for and highlighted previous films that demonstrate the urge to shake up the classic horror/thriller conventions. Hush follows Maddie Young, a deaf and dumb writer, living in an isolated woodland. Maddie needs to fight off a masked (because who would have it any other way?) psychopath who, after killing Maddie’s friend thinks killing a woman who is alone and both deaf and dumb will be as easy as resisting the last slice of pizza in the box, which we all know of course, isn’t easy at all!
What Maddie’s disability brings to the film is an increased sense of tension, we are not on par with the victim, Hush puts us one step ahead of them, we see the killer’s movements and know what’s coming. Fear comes from the shock of knowing what is going to happen. What creates the tension in this instance is that we know Maddie cannot hear him, Maddie perceives the world differently and this creates an engaging story with little more than two main characters, an isolated house and minimal dialogue.
Hush, a film clearly influenced by elements of the 1974 film Wait until Dark where we see criminals play games with Suzy (Audrey Hepburn) who was blinded in an accident, has helped shine a light on similar themes in the genre. Hush followed Flanagan’s 2014 film Oculus in which he again plays with this idea of failed or manipulated senses, this time using a paranormal mirror that alters the character’s perceptions.
2010 Spanish thriller, Los ojos de Julia (Julia’s eyes) is another example of this growing trend. Julia (Belén Rueda) slowly loses her sight before being gradually drugged and attacked while trying to uncover who murdered her twin sister. Like Maddie, she fights her way to the end, making use of the senses that remain. Don’t Breathe, released earlier this year follows a group of teenagers as they break into a blind man’s house, easy, yes? No. We know it won’t be easy, the blind man, after the teens discover he’s already holding somebody captive, proceeds to hunt the group down.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s season 4 episode also titled Hush (1992) sees the town of Sunnydale plunged into silence as they are tormented by the organ harvesting, Gentlemen who along with Death in season 2’s Killed by Death (1998) were enough to keep me up at night as a 15 year-old. The episode was praised for its interpretation of a society’s breakdown once communication is lost but the episode also silenced the heroine we all know and love, changing the way she needed to fight. In the end her voice was the weapon all along.The growing trend to skimp on the gore and hike up the tension-o-meter has resulted in protagonists being given an obvious disadvantage which turns out to be the complete opposite. These characters, minus one (or two) senses must find a new way to survive to the end of the film. The gore-fests we’ve been used to in the past don’t cut it anymore. It’s an obvious and effective way to evolve a genre that’s so steeped in well-known conventions. You can’t call for help because you can’t speak, you don’t know who’s behind you because you can’t see and the screams of your friends being brutally murdered in the garden can’t warn you because you cannot hear. This all makes for one tense 90-minute cinema session. But how long until this concept needs re-vamping too?
Excluding the Blind Man in Don’t Breathe who, in the end turns out to be the villain of the piece, the protagonists in the other films mentioned here all have two things in common, they’re all women and they’re all victims (or made to seem victimised by their disability). All of them fighting for survival in the dark and in the silence. It could be (and I’m sure has been) argued that this trend is just the final girl convention that’s been re-wrapped into something that initially seems fresh at first or, when looked at closely is just a play on the classic damsel in distress tale we’ve seen a thousand times before. But we can look at it from another perspective: as a representation of the isolation felt by so many women in today’s society, often unheard and unseen, even now. The only way to survive is to fight and find their own “voice”. These characters may be damsels in distress but they saved themselves in the end. I like to think Buffy’s deafening scream at the end of Hush and Maddie and Julia’s constant and brutal battle to survive is a sign of perceptions changing, in the end that’s what it’s all about. See?