“There is nothing a man cannot do once he accepts the fact that there is no god.”
Don’t Breathe is one of the best horror films of the year and, quite surprisingly for a modern day horror film (and especially surprising when you realise director Fede Alvarez’s last film was 2013’s blood soaked and surprisingly good Evil Dead reboot/sequel), Don’t Breathe manages it without being all that gory or that particularly gross. It is bloody and there is one gross, turkey baster-based set piece, but this isn’t Eli Roth style torture porn. Refreshingly, Don’t Breathe mostly relies on good ol’ fashioned scares and one of the most tense premise’s ever put to film – and it’s all handled brilliantly.
The film doesn’t take long to get our protagonists into position; 15 minutes in and they’re breaking into the house of Stephen Lang’s seemingly weak, old, and blind war vet. Taking a leaf out of horror maestro James Wan’s book Alvarez negotiates the house with a sweeping steadicam long shot, lingering on certain items (a bell, a hammer, a space in a cupboard, etc) that become important later. The trio of thieves Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are all excellent and mostly likeable (except Money, who’s an asshole), all with their personal reasons for getting their hands on the blind man’s cash. Money is just in it for the thrills, Rocky wants to move her and her young sister away from their abusive mother, and Alex is a naive nice guy with a thing for Rocky. The robbery gets quickly out of hand however when the thieves realise that the blinded military vet isn’t as frail as he seems and that a lack of sight doesn’t mean a lack of murderous vengeance. The handful of cast members are all excellent in the film, especially Levy and Lang. This is Levy’s second time around as unfortunate victim to the nasty acts thought up by Alvarez (after Evil Dead) and she does an impressive job, believably bouncing around between victim and bad ass. Lang is also impressive in his mostly wordless role as The Blind Man. A lesser actor could have made the character into your standard silent horror movie antagonist, existing only to terrorise the main characters, but Lang humanises him. You never really feel sorry for him but you do understand why he does what he does, or rather you understand why he thinks he has to do what he does.
As was the case with the other unexpectedly superb film that was released recently – Hell or High Water – Don’t Breathe brilliantly encapsulates the state of a the underclasses in modern day America. Don’t Breathe doesn’t have the same mis-trust and hatred of the banks Hell or High Water has but the setting in a once booming now desolate Detroit says a lot about what the filmmakers think of the current situation for a lot of people. The criminal protagonists of both films are the direct victims of the economy, forced into criminal acts just to achieve the ‘American Dream’; honest work isn’t the answer any more.
With Alvarez at the helm, Don’t Breath offers some truly shocking and original scares, a pitch black chase through the labyrinthine basement is up there with best scenes of the year, and 90% of the film will be spent on the edge of your seat. The film is smaller in scale than Evil Dead (the budget is under $10 million) but this means Alvarez has to be even more creative and innovative as he’s confined to the inside of the blind man’s house. Alvarez builds the tension beautifully, usually refraining from cheap jump scares and building one hell of an atmosphere. He throws enough twists and turns in to keep thing constantly evolving; and the status quo is constantly shifting. The blind man is easy to escape – the thieves can just run away. Until he locks all the doors and bars all of the windows and sets his dog on them that is. Well the thieves can see, that’s an advantage. Until the blind man turns the lights off, and suddenly with his enhanced senses he’s the one with the advantage. This means the movie is genuinely surprising (doubly so if you’ve avoided the spoiler-y trailers). A slightly misjudged opening shot means you can work out some of the last act long before it happens, but this isn’t a massive problem.
The Bottom Line: 2016 has been called a disappointment by some, especially when looking at the big tent pole movies. But look to the smaller movies instead and it turns out 2016 has had some brilliant films – with Don’t Breathe being up there with the best of them. It’s scary, innovative, and wonderfully made; director Fede Alvarez is definitely one to watch. The set design and music elevate the scares exponentially and Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues’ script knows how to write for young adult characters. It’s got a relevant message behind it and the cast are all superb, especially Stephen Lang and Jane Levy. Definitely check this one out on the big screen, but don’t bother paying for a premium seat – you’ll only be using the edge of it anyway.
Reviewed by Tom