Fede Alvarez’s DON’T BREATHE has a title that instantly recalls the gripping European horror that Edgar Wright so expertly parodied in his Grindhouse trailer Don’t. This is no accident, as his latest collaboration with Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert’s Ghost House Pictures is a throwback to a different kind of thriller, one that relies almost exclusively on a deep-seeded psychological terror. Being easily one of the most refreshingly good horror films of recent memory, it still falters somewhat when it trades suspense for far baser constructs.
Of the many fears catalogued in scary movies over the last century or so of cinema, the fear of the dark is the most pervasive. As the Charlie Lyne’s documentary Fear Itself points out, the totally irrational fear also allows us and environment where we have the liberty of being ourselves. The fear of the dark is also a trepidation about the unknown, but DON’T BREATHE reverses the assumptions of neo-noir thrillers like Michael Apted’s Blink (1994) by making the sighted the prey. A trio of house burglars (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) in Detroit follow a hot tip that blind Army veteran (Stephen Lang) has a large sum of money stashed away. However, once they expertly gain access, they find that neither their victim or his prized possessions are what they expected.
As a technical achievement in pure tension, Alvarez gives us an unrelentingly gripping experience. At 88 minutes, Alvarez maximises almost every inch of screen time to play with the audience, wasting few seconds in literally dragging us kicking and screaming into his world. Using a large number of overhead shots, there is a feeling of being disconcerted immediately. This is supported by the desaturated look that cinematographer Pedro Luque gives every shot, as though we shouldn’t believe what we are seeing. As the heroes are plunged into darkness and forced to fend off The Blind Man, there’s a simple genius to framing a serial killer by his disability, rather than the supernatural powers imbued to latter day slashers.
For all of its accomplishments, there are some unfortunate horror trends that DON’T BREATHE falls back on. Putting aside the fact that the trio’s basic plan is ill-conceived, Alvarez’s dedication to the false endings of the genre give rise to some bizarre plot twists. A character revelation about The Blind Man, and an ugly assault on Levy’s character of Rocky, takes us into torture porn territory and undoes some of the creepy credits the film has earned. It’s a shame, because the movie manages to keep viewers on the razor’s edge for the rest of the running time.
For many of us, the idea of a home invasion is one of the most terrifying things of all. Reversing the power dynamics of this fear is even more unsettling, as Alvarez constructs his film around a single frightening entity and watches it all play out. The powerful use of silence, and the efficacy of a killer suddenly popping up but unable to see his prey, is as unnerving as it sounds. The stated issues aside, coupled with the inevitable demands of setting up a potential franchise, DON’T BREATHE is about as suspenseful as they come.
2016 | US | DIR: Fede Alvarez | WRITERS: Jessica Sharzer (Based on novel by Jeanne Ryan) | CAST: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang | DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes