Director: Fede Alvarez
Starring: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette
Release Date: Sep 9
With a charred Freddy Kreuger chasing kids up and down their nightmares, trying to stab their fleshy bits with his claw, it isn’t surprising that we don’t sympathise with his deformity. He might have been burned alive in the most horrific way imaginable, but he is a Monster. You’re not supposed to feel sorry for the Monster.
The Monster is evil.
The Monster is bad.
The Monster is generally pretty ugly too, and therefore EVIL!
This idea is certainly being sold to us here when two likable kids (and one you-love-to-hate douchebag) break into a wealthy, blind man’s house with the goal of stealing his substantial fortune. Unfortunately, said blind man is also a war veteran with heightened senses, a psychotic aversion to intruders and a lot of domestic weaponry at his disposal…
Don’t Breathe is quite refreshing with this premise because, at first glance, the antagonist is also the victim. He seesaws between vulnerability and monstrosity several times, and quite aggressively as the film builds towards its climax. He is never depicted as an angel, but rather as a man fully aware that he is splashing in an ocean of anger and hate.
His actions aren’t justified, but there is a certain level of empathy. This dwindles dramatically as the film reaches its conclusion. And yet, even at his worst, you can see how the pain he causes others is borne from pain caused unto him.
This reflective aspect of the film is more of an undertone though, an interesting idea to chew on after the credits have rolled. As a horror movie, Don’t Breathe aims to be a harsh exercise in tension, with a surprisingly haunting conclusion.
Ironically, it doesn’t reach the heights of The Descent, which had a near identical premise, but it does manage to get under your skin in its final moments.
Prior to that, there are plenty of great set-pieces, with the blind scurry in the basement being a standout. The central scare mechanic at work is having the Blind Man appear out of nowhere, often looking directly at Rocky or Alex. This happens multiple times but every single time, in that half-second, you do need to remind yourself that he can’t see anything.
It’s a clever tool for scaring the audience and it helps that we actually care about our protagonists as well. Like the Blind Man, they are well-rounded, three-dimensional characters.
Levy’s Rocky, despite her casual law-breaking nature, has a strong motivation for breaking into the house; she needs the money so that she and her little sister can escape to California, away from their abusive mother. While this aspect could have used some further development, it gives us enough of a reason to root for her, and to not want her skull caved in.
Minnette does even better with Alex, who is given less focus but is better developed. Rocky is Alex’s best friend. Alex has a thing for Rocky. And Rocky can’t break into houses without Alex’s Dad’s security system master key.
On top of that, Alex can’t leave his Dad to go to California, so Rocky is the only real reason for him breaking and entering. It’s a neat little relationship that feels very real, with a lot of natural affection and frustration played out.
However, there is one glaring issue with male-on-female violence. There are enough instances of it to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but whether this is meant to horrify as much as it does remains ambiguous. It’s unsettling and, from one perspective, that is the entire point. That’s how we’re supposed to feel coming out of a horror film. From another perspective however, it makes you uncomfortably aware of the state of gender politics as a whole.
Whichever viewpoint you come away with is dependent on each individual person.
Despite this divisive issue, Don’t Breathe remains a well-made film that does a solid job in what it aims to do. All its elements comes together to shape a film that is both humble and impressive.
It’s constantly tense, with very few dull moments, and a good deal smarter than your average horror film.
And after making it to the ending, you will probably never want to use a turkey baster again.
Written by Stephen Hill