If you or any of your friends are criminally-inclined, take them to see Don’t Breathe; we guarantee you it’ll put just about anyone off burglary for life. This is the second feature from Fede Alvarez, the Uruguayan director of the slickly violent Evil Dead remake – a movie that was far better made and fun than it had any right to be. Don’t Breathe leans heavier on suspense than outright gore, but it remains a convincing showcase for Alvarez as an adept genre filmmaker.
The premise is as simple as an archetypal cabin-in-the-woods horror: a trio of disadvantaged early 20-somethings break into an old blind man’s house, expecting to find a life-changing haul of cash but instead find themselves face-to-face with a deadly adversary – and his equally terrifying hound.
We’ve seen the burglars-in-peril scenario in horror before, most memorably in Wes Craven’s underrated 1991 oddity The People Under The Stairs. Like that film, Don’t Breathe depicts its band of young criminals as victims of their environment; the streets are cracked and overgrown, the houses in the middle-class suburbs largely empty and falling apart.
If we can’t condone the central characters’ life of crime, we can at least understand why they’ve turned to it. Alex (Dylan Minnette) is the most morally conflicted of the group, even if he’s its tactical lynchpin: his father owns a security company, and Alex uses his inside knowledge of dad’s security systems to break into the houses of the better-off. The other two members of the group are the aggressive Money (Daniel Zovatto) and his girlfriend Rocky (Jane Levy), who specialises in squeezing through small windows.
When the opportunity to rob the old Iraq war veteran’s house comes up, Alex initially balks at the idea, before the lure of a fortune in cash – and his secret affection for Rocky – make him go against his better judgement. Big mistake, obviously, because the old Iraq war veteran happens to be played by the formidable Stephen Lang, perhaps best known to most as the four-square Colonel Quaritch from James Cameron’s Avatar.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of home invasion thrillers can probably imagine what happens next, though Alvarez manages to find all kinds of small yet engaging things to do with familiar genre staples – crawl-spaces, panicked characters fumbling with keys and so forth. There are set-pieces which recall – or may be direct references to – everything from Cujo to Silence Of The Lambs to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. One set-piece, which takes place in almost total darkness and is shot in Zero Dark Thirty-like desaturated night vision, is truly nail-biting.
Alvarez’s style of direction – all saturated colours and deep shadows – doesn’t exactly push back genre boundaries, but he’s very good at building up suspense in situations we’ve seen a dozen times before. Like Blumhouse’s recent horror thriller Hush, Don’t Breathe wrings plenty of tension from a confined setting. The lean nature of the plot and the sparsity of the movie’s dialogue mean that Alex and Rocky are simple, one-note characters, but their resourcefulness and the dire nature of their situation means we’re soon rooting for them. And besides, Minette and Levy impart a thoroughly effective sense of shiny-eyed terror.
Lang, meanwhile, turns in a particularly odd-ball performance as the antagonist – a wheezing, mumbling wolf of a man who never lets his blindness get in the way of a good hunt. Imagine a cross between Rutger Hauer’s milky-eyed warrior from Blind Fury and Bane out of The Dark Knight Rises, and you’ll get an idea of how unnerving the old guy is.
Beyond its undoubted appeal as a genre thrill ride, Don’t Breathe fails to forge much further. The urban decay of post-collapse Detroit is nicely set up in a great opening shot, but Alvarez – who co-writes with Rodo Sayagues – doesn’t seem too interested in using it as much more than an evocative backdrop. Craven’s People Under The Stairs had something quite wry to say about poverty and greed in middle-class America; Don’t Breathe is merely content to make us gag. And make no mistake, there are a several truly gross-out moments in here, some in seriously questionable taste which should make for some heated post-cinema discussions.
Not as seethingly vicious as Jeremy Saulnier’s similarly confined thriller Green Room, and less flesh-crawling than David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows – another film set in Michigan – Don’t Breathe is nevertheless a pulse-quickening, perfectly paced modern horror. Like its hulking antagonist, Alvarez’s movie provides a vice-like grip to the bitter end.
Don’t Breathe is out in UK cinemas on the 9th September.