The holiday season forces so many of us to face the institutionalized horrors of the annual all-family get-together, no wonder we scramble again and again to the solace of It’s a Wonderful Life, The Nightmare Before Christmas and A Christmas Story. Sometimes we crave stronger fare to get us through the festivities, though. Enter the 1998 thriller Hush, an overcooked slab of honey baked ham smothered in a thick, gooey glaze thanks to Jessica Lange as the matriarch of a family wacky enough to reassure some of us that our own families are relatively sane.
Lange channels such Ghosts of Melodrama Past as the great Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – with a dash of Dunaway -- leaving no co-star or piece of scenery unchewed in playing a monstrously meddling psychotic Southern grande dame who wants to kill her pregnant daughter-in-law as much as she appears to want to schtup her hunky Oedipus wreck of a son Johnathon Schaech who returns to the family horse ranch for the Christmas holidays, the better to return his mama’s come-hither looks and recite the W.H. Auden verse, “I’ll love you till China and Africa meet and the river jumps over the mountain and the salmon swim in the street.” Oscar winner Lange, apparently under the impression that no misbegotten melodrama is complete without a dose of extreme Blanche Dubois-itis, attacks the role with so many tics, hand flutters, twitches, girlish giggles and sidewise glances that she is hypnotically horrible.
Happily, when the plot requires her to downshift into homicidal overdrive, Lange’s victim is preggers daughter-in-law Gwyneth Paltrow, who gets rained on by dead rats, dragged around, drugged into forced labor and pretty much left to bleed to death while Schaech is too distracted by his past -- or the mirror -- to notice that his mother is a raving loon. Of course, considering that the terminally annoying Paltrow (an Oscar-winner the same year as Hush) plays virtually the entire movie with one insufferably smug expression and in a nasal monotone, we’d say she earns every bit of the punishment she gets. “Here’s to accidents, fuck ‘em!” Paltrow quips, when a horse kicks the hell out her. And here’s to career karma, bless it!
Director-writer Jonathan Darby’s script is jerry-rigged so that Paltrow and Schaech never compare notes about Lange’s bat-shit craziness, forcing Paltrow to visit a Catholic retirement home to get the scoop on her mother-in-law from Lange’s own mother-in-law Nina Foch, a long, long way down from An American in Paris. Scene-stealer Foch eyes Paltrow’s bulging belly and observes, “This will be a big hit around here. The nuns love a fetus.”
But the bulk of the movie’s camp hilarity is reserved for Lange and Paltrow’s head-butting, like when midwife Lange screams “Push! Push!” at the bed-ridden, in-labor mother-to-be, to which Paltrow fires back, “I am pushing, you bitch!” Or, later, when Paltrow finally exposes to Schaech his mother’s treacheries and Lange bellows, “I want you to throw this lying bitch out of my house!” But the best – and truest – line of the entire Southern Gothic mess comes when Foch dishes the dirt on hoity-toity Lange’s white trash past, snarling, “She was a stable girl – shoveling horseshit.” In Hush, who isn’t?