The state of the horror genre has been more then lacking, as of late. What few shinning gems that come out are quickly milked, often churning out uninspired sequels that fail to deliver on the strengths of the original. And with the lack of new concepts, we’re more likely to be shown a reboot or continuation of something we already saw, rather then something new or unexpected. Luckily, in comes Don’t Breathe, directed by the Evil Dead remake’s Fede Alvarez, which manages salvage the disappointing summer movie season with excellent filmmaking and performances throughout.
The films central concept, which sees a group of house robbers hunted in the home of a blind man they planned to steal from, offers a scenario very similar to 2009’s The Collector, and smartly focuses on challenging the audience’s loyalties. Despite our protagonist’s motivations for stealing being noble enough, the film never lets us forget that they are criminals, and invite the horrors thrusted upon them once they attempt to rob this blind man in his home. Likewise, while the blind man in question is more then justified to defend himself against his would-be robbers, there comes a point where he goes out of his way to inflict pain and misery upon the assailants, making him as morally conflicted as they are. Its in this middle ground of rooting for and against both parties that Don’t Breathe feels less like a film, and more like a real life scenario, drawing audiences in further and making for a more tense and involving horror film.
With so much emphasis on this middle ground, its fortunate that the small cast delivers such believable performances. Evil Dead‘s Jane Levy delivers a more human take on the typical “final girl” trope, being confident while still remaining realistically vulnerable. Likewise, Dylan Minnette does well as the groups voice of reason, despite not being given as much motivation for his actions. The real standout here is Stephen Lang as the titular blind man, and while he doesn’t often speak, Lang’s acting through body language makes his blindness seem realistic, even as he chases down the films protagonists with lethal precision. Lang is tasked with delivering on many of the film’s darker moments, and despite how far the film takes this material, you never feel like Lang is giving a performance, but rather embodying a broken, tragic figure, complicating the audiences allegiances that much further.
Yet even with the remarkable talent on display in front of the camera, it’s director Fede Alvarez and his sense of style that shines through the film’s other strengths. Though a decrepit house is not the most original setting, Alvarez’s creative cinematography helps the setting feel like a character all its own. An early tracking shot in particular helps point out key locations early on to help viewers familiarize themselves with it early on, without spoiling the film’s many twists and turns. The highlight of the film is a basement chase filmed in pitch black, forgoing the usual green night vision look in favor of a more frightening and believable viewpoint. Throughout the 90 minute runtime, it almost feels like Alvarez is constantly experimenting with new ways to film and track each shot, making for a horror film that can also be surprisingly beautiful to look at.
Equally important to the film is its excellent sound design. With so much of the tension based around our protagonist’s not being heard, the sound mixing in Don’t Breathe helps make every creak in the floor feel like a thunderstorm, further adding to the tension. There also never comes a point where a character seems to be breathing to loudly or making too much noise, helping the film remain believable for why certain characters remain hidden in certain scenes. On the opposite sound spectrum, gunshots are frighteningly realistic, with the sound of bullets loudly tearing through flesh and debris adding heavily to the weight and impact of every round fired. Simply put, for as beautiful of a film as Don’t Breathe is to watch, just as much work has clearly been put into how the film sounds.
The only major flaw with the film presents itself in the third act, but does simplify a movie whose strength was originally in its deep complexity. Without getting into spoilers, a certain twist on a character is revealed to completely change the audience’s thoughts on them. Because of this, the previously mentioned middle ground between whom to root for is thrown away, in favor of more clear cut villains and heroes. The film also gets decidedly darker, going into one particular scene that makes a character all but irredeemable; what’s sadder is that you can clearly see how this darker plot point could be easily removed without impacting the overall plot. What may have felt like a natural turn of events during filming sadly comes off as an attempt to be edgy that detracts the from Don’t Breathe‘s better moments.
With its excellent production values, stellar performances and questionable morality, Don’t Breathe stands as further proof of Alvarez’s place as one of the great horror filmmakers of our time. Playing on what scares people is difficult enough, but managing to balance that with an audience’s empathy while trying to make everything stay plausible is an even more impressive feat. Avoid spoiling the film for yourself as much as possible, For Don’t Breathe manages to truly impress and innovate when you….don’t see it coming.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 9 Bad Jokes to End Reviews on out of 10