2016 was a big year for horror movies about people being held in one location against their will. Green Room, Hush, and 10 Cloverfield Lane all featured our protagonists caught in a pickle, stuck in a room or house trying to escape. I’m always interested in one-location films because I love to see how the filmmakers work around only having one type of location available to film in. It’s harder to make your movies more engaging when you can only work with a bunch of dingy rooms in an old house, so when they pull it off it elevates the film to something a little more special for me. When I heard that Fede Alvarez (director of the 2013 Evil Dead remake, which I love) was going to be making another horror film set mostly in one house, I was totally sold.
Don’t Breathe is Alvarez’s second full length film, and sees him pairing up with Jane Levy again as his leading lady. Levy played the drug-addled Mia in Evil Dead, and returns in Don’t Breathe as Rocky, a young woman in a broken family trying to escape her shitty life in Detroit with her younger sister. Rocky, her boyfriend Money (played by Daniel Zovatto who was Greg from It Follows, and yes, Money is the character’s real name) and her friend Alex played by Dylan Minnette (Goosebumps, Prisoners) break into houses and sell off whatever valuables they can steal to get by. Alex’s father works for a home security alarm company, and Alex takes advantage of his knowledge of the security systems to help their burglaries go off with out a hitch. After finding out that a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) came into a large amount of money after his daughter was killed in a car accident, our intrepid band of deplorables set their sights on his house for what could be the last heist they’ll ever need to pull.
If you’ve seen 2013’s Evil Dead, you’ll know that Alvarez already has an affinity towards simple characters, gross out scenes, and jump scares just like his mentor, the legendary Sam Raimi. Don’t Breathe follows some of the Alvarez-Raimi formula to a T and offers a couple nice subversions for us so that we don’t get too bored. That being said, this isn’t a particularly groundbreaking film. A lot of people are hailing Don’t Breathe as the fresh new horror film of the year, rescuing the genre from it’s Hollywood-led downhill spiral and formulization (not a real word, but you get what I mean), but honestly I don’t think it’s deserving of such high praise. Don’t Breathe has a cool concept but is executed in a pretty standard way, plodding along with a few regular Hollywood tropes and clichés that any attentive viewer can call the outcomes of from a mile away.
While predictable, I think Don’t Breathe’s strengths lie in Alvarez’s ability to build tension. Right off the bat, we’re treated to a montage of set-ups for later in the film. They’re displayed a little too heavy handed in my opinion, but as soon as Rocky, Money, and Alex break into The Blind Man’s house, we’re treated to an abundance of objects and locations in the house that will come back later. This film owns the concept of Checkov’s gun, let alone many Checkov’s guns to necessitate an entire Checkov’s gun rack. All these things are clearly laid out for us, inspiring moments of “ooooh, that hammer is soooo coming back and is going to be used to mess someone the fuck up!” While all of these tip-offs do get cashed in as the film goes on, it really feels like these things didn’t need to be shown in one long, stitched together take. As much as I love oners, this one felt a little too showy for how non-technical it was, and it honestly took me out of the film.
Now don’t get me wrong, Don’t Breathe is a fine movie. As I said earlier, the tension is key here. The stakes are pretty much constantly raised from the beginning of the film, from the reveal of Stephen Lang’s super ripped, combat proficient, and armed character to the dwindling escape routes and increased potential gain for our protagonists, to a much nastier and sleazier reveal that throws everything on its head later in the film. The battlefield our main characters find themselves in is constantly changing, and that is what I think keeps Don’t Breathe engaging throughout it’s run time.
Now, those of you who run in various horror circles have probably heard that this film has a couple less than savory scenes. I’ve seen some unpleasant things in movies before, and between this and the rather graphic scenes in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, I’m not sure which is worse. Don’t Breathe does toe the line between explicit horror movie and grimy exploitation flick once or twice, but thankfully never crosses it. It’s got its big gross and disturbing scene featuring the worst turkey baster ever put on screen, but otherwise stays pretty tame (relative to other horror/thrillers, of course).
Don’t Breathe is a decent addition to 2016’s already solid horror lineup. It isn’t movie of the year by any stretch, but Alvarez shows us that despite this being his second outing into feature films, he isn’t wet behind the ears. Stephen Lang kills it as the Blind Man, and the film has it’s fair share of oh fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck moments, but it’s still less than the sum of it’s parts I think. There were too many twists and turns in the last third of the movie, and it feels like they threw out whatever they could and just hoped it stuck with the audience. Some of the reveals were legitimately well done, clever, and very clearly thought out, but others were a little too much of a stretch to get a rise out of me. And once a few of these twists have passed by, they start diminishing in effectiveness almost immediately.
Don’t Breathe is worth a horror movie night with friends, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to revisit it in the future. Who knows, maybe I’ll have a Hush/ Don’t Breathe double feature of movies where somebody-is-trapped-in-a-house-with-a-killer-after-them-but-somebody-in-the-film-has lost-one-or-multiple-senses-that-shakes-things-up-and-makes-it-immediately-more-tense. Seek it out because it’s a solid, well made horror film that doesn’t pander and isn’t made for 14 year olds. Give these folks your money so that we aren’t eventually buried alive in Paranormal Activity sequels and rip-offs.