Flipping the tables on the old ‘Wait Until Dark’ formula, ‘Don’t Breathe’ pits a group of plucky young home invaders against a psychotic blind man. It’s a pretty ridiculous premise that regularly slips outside the realm of realism into absurdity. The good news is that it’s also a white knuckle ride of shock and suspense with some expertly employed craft from director Fede Alvarez.
While, to some extent, brains will have to be shut off upon entry, the movie is worth watching for the giddy screams and jumps that should fill multiplexes. This thriller works, and more often than not, it works damn well.
The setup is dispensed with in a tight 15 minutes. Dylan Minnette stars as Alex, a Detroit teen whose father works security, giving him access to codes and keys that come in handy during his unofficial night job. He breaks into houses with his not-so-secret crush, Rocky (Jane Levy), and her pesky boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto). The scam works until they decide to target a house they think might contain big ol’ stacks of cash. The owner is an ex-Army vet (Stephen Lang) who has money from a lawsuit and disability that could be within those walls. He’s also blind, which makes them feel guilty, just not enough to skip the sweet robbery opportunity. So, the gang bust into his fortress and go through their usual routine, until The Blind Man (actual character name) wakes up and proves to be pretty damn competent at killing and defending himself despite not being able to see. Cue an endless series of sweaty-palmed suspense scenes of teens fighting for their life in silence, as well plenty of hiding in the dark.
Alvarez’s last directorial effort was the ‘Evil Dead’ remake, which was renowned for spilling gallons of blood in the name of good old-fashioned entertainment. This one doesn’t rely nearly as much on the red stuff, earning its R-rating through situational horror and intensity a la James Wan’s ‘The Conjuring’ (well, that and one deeply disturbing sequence that I wouldn’t dare reveal here). Like Wan, he uses impossible CGI-linked camera shots to carefully lay out his location in the early going, so that when the shit hits the fan the audience is well aware of where everyone is hiding and what corners the scares might arrive from next. It’s an expertly crafted bit of suspense that got audible reactions out of the audience I saw the movie with and should continue to do so every time it plays to a packed house full of jittery participants. After the Found Footage trend that dispensed with conventional movie suspense grammar, these new hyper-stylized chillers really make an impact on viewers who aren’t so used to the old tricks anymore.
The script has flaws. It’s a nitpicker’s nightmare filled with bad decisions and plot holes and inexplicable twists and other silliness. Those who consider pointing out a continuity error the height of film criticism will have a field day, but everyone else should be fine. The thing about a solid horror flick is that suspension of disbelief is easy so long as the atmosphere is strong enough to pull you in. If anything, that stuff just becomes gentle surrealism to add to the nightmare, whether intentional or not. (See: Italian horror films from the 1960s-’80s for details.)
As long as you buckle up and let the nitpickery go, ‘Don’t Breathe’ is a wild ride. The actors help a great deal, always providing a strong grounding presence no matter how absurd the scenario. In particular, Stephen Lang (‘Avatar’) is a nasty and gruff villain with just enough humanizing back story to be slightly more than a monster. He barely speaks, but casts enough of an imposing presence to always be terrifying. Minnette and especially Levy are also always credible in their panic and bad decision making, which sells the scares, especially when they slide into the ridiculous.
A movie like ‘Don’t Breathe’ is essentially a horror thriller set-piece delivery system and ultimately has to be appreciated based on how well those beats work. Given that Alvarez strings together one after another for about an hour with no breathing room (apologies for the punnery, couldn’t help myself) and they all work, the flick has to be considered a success. The guy knows exactly how to ply his viewers like putty and is often rather inventive in updating old tricks. (In particular, the way he shoots pitch black in night vision black-and-white is both ingenious and deeply effective.)
For those who want to sit in the dark and be prodded by a talented horror director until you scream, ‘Don’t Breathe’ delivers the goods. You might not want to spend too much time thinking about the logic of how the whole thing unfolds, but thankfully the movie works well enough in the moment with so few gaps in the relentless thrill ride that the dumb stuff won’t even occur to you until halfway home.