Such is the measure of the status of Alfred Hitchcock as the master of the suspense movie, that the term “Hitchcockian thriller” still has the power to draw audiences to see a new film, not matter where the film comes from, no matter how little known the director, no matter how small the budget – whether it be a French thriller like Tell No One or Red Lights, a Hollywood horror like Vacancy or even a low-budget independent UK feature from a first-time director. While association with the name of Hitchcock provides a certain draw for audiences, the comparison however is inevitably almost always going to be somewhat less than favourable, but Mark Tonderai, a former DJ for BBC Radio One no less, fares surprisingly well as in his debut feature Hush.
As with any suspense thriller of this type, the crucial point is to win the viewer over to sympathising with the predicament of its protagonists and go along with the subsequent development no matter how outlandish that situation that they find themselves in might initially appear. Get it right like Hitchcock, and you’ll accept Cary Grant as a lone man caught up in a shoot-out in the United Nations building, being chased by a crop duster plane down a deserted highway in the middle of nowhere, or indeed climbing to a tense showdown on Mt Rushmore. And in many respects, Hush steps up to the challenge as a kind of lower-budget English version of North by Northwest, Tonderai putting a regular Mancunian bloke with ordinary problems through a tense, dramatic series of events that take on an extraordinary momentum of their own when he witnesses something disturbing on the M1.
Zakes Abbot (William Ash) is travelling along the motorway with his girlfriend Beth (Christine Bottomley), doing his job of changing posters in the toilets of route’s many service stations. The journey is already established as being a fraught one, Beth upset that Zakes has forgotten what was for her an important moment during their last holiday together, a lapse that she believes typifies the problems in their relationship and justifies to some extent the brief fling she had with Leo, an older man who is interested in her. The tension that lies between the couple however takes another turn when Zakes believes he sees a naked woman, seemingly chained up and caged in the back of a large white truck that has overtaken their car. Should he follow the truck and find out what is going on, or should he leave his rather strange and barely-credible sighting to the police while he finishes off his job and tries to rescue his relationship? When Beth walks out on him at the final service station and then seems to vanish into thin air, Zakes finds that, in a way, the questions are one and the same.
Perhaps not everyone will take to these characters and their personal problems, but it at least provides a sound basis to the challenges that Zakes must face in his pursuit of the white truck. It’s about being prepared to face up to the flaws in his character, it’s about realising what he is about to lose and see how far he is willing to go to make good on his failings. Initially he’s not exactly committed and the subsequent cat-and-mouse chase that ensues - with roles at times reversed - evidently reflects the developments that he discovers about Beth and Leo, revelations that give him pause to continue questioning the sense of what it is he is doing. This makes what follows more than just a thrilling series of escalating nail-biting (and sometimes even nail-penetrating) thriller set-pieces.
That’s not to make light of the handling of the set-pieces either. One wrong note, any out-of-character behaviour not already established in the personalities of the characters from the outset, the slightest hint of the director pulling a convenient deus ex machina out of the bag and the whole house of cards is likely to come tumbling down. Tonderai, as writer and director demonstrates rather a good awareness of the genre conventions, and more than just Hitchcock, treading down some familiar paths certainly (strangers from a car accident turning up at the door of a farmhouse in the night; a convenient animal to blame for an alarm being triggered), and not all of them are entirely convincing (the security booth incident) but the staging, signposting and storyboarding is mostly excellent, with enough of a fresh spin on proceedings to make it consistently tense and gripping, holding the viewer through to the next horrific development. Is what follows really any less credible than some of the twists in Vertigo or North by Northwest? Well, William Ash is no Cary Grant or James Stewart, and Mark Tonderai is certainly no Hitchcock, but what he achieves with a limited budget and in his debut feature is nonetheless quite impressive.