Still waters run deep. And in the case of Fede Alvarez’s home invasion horror thriller, a reclusive blind bad@$$ can be way more terrifying than your typical supernatural entity.
In many ways, Don’t Breathe kind of flaunts a big middle finger at typical haunted house fare. It proves that you don’t need ghosts to scare audiences in a movie that’s set largely in one house.
The fear factor, for the most part, comes courtesy of masterfully-crafted edge-of-your-seat tension. Alvarez’s sophomore feature film thrives on quiet and heavy suspense, which he successfully delivers through stealthy camera movement and a constant decrepit atmosphere.
And as its title suggests, you’ll find yourself unknowingly holding your breath during many of the bloodcurdlingly intense scenes, which the movie generously provides throughout its modest 88-minute running time.
The story zeroes in on a trio of young small-time bandits in a downtrodden part of Detroit. There’s Rocky (Suburgatory’s Jane Levy), who is trying to raise sufficient funds to whisk her daughter away from the gritty neighbourhood; Alex (Goosebumps’ Dylan Minnette), who harbours unrequited feelings for Rocky; and then there’s Money (It Follows’ Daniel Zovatto), whose sole purpose it seems is to be a first class a-hole.
They break into the homes of rich folks, steal just enough to avoid big-time jail, and exit without tripping any alarms. Alex’s dad happens to work at the company that provides security for those homes, you see.
Alvarez doesn’t waste much time narrating the amateur thieves’ backstory. Not that he needs to, really. The young cast members – with the exception of Zovatto (to be fair, his thug role is strictly two-dimensional to begin with) – do a splendid job of humanising their characters. And this allows the Evil Dead reboot auteur to go straight into the action.
Before long, our band of bandits is in a godforsaken neighbourhood. A blind man’s home is the only occupied house in the area and, after sedating a vicious Rottweiler, the trio breaks in. From there, all hell breaks lose.
It’s one stress-inducing scenario after another as the assailants suddenly find themselves turned into victims in an unyieldingly brutal cat-and-mouse chase within the run-down interior of the home. The owner of the house may be sightless, but he’s not completely defenceless.
The fact that the no-frills, effectively horrifying storyline manages to kick up perpetual nail-biting suspense is in part thanks to the many creative threats that the characters are faced with. By-the-book jump scares make their way into some scenes, while others make use of fantastic cinematography to deliver the chills.
There’s some pretty nifty camera work at play here. One particular quiet long shot where the camera sweeps through the entirety of the house has to be one of the most tension-filled moments in the film. One scene – focusing on the frightened, dilated pupils of the characters – is bound to go down as one of the best in the genre’s modern history.
The movie does a good job of shifting the dynamics of terror. That possibly explains how Alvarez manages to keep the tension palpable in such a constricted space. If there’s one thing you can’t fault the film for, it would be the sheer unpredictability of the plot.
But the bulk of the heavy lifting is really done by the unnamed Blind Man. Seasoned actor Stephen Lang (Avatar) portrays such a lean and mean character that our natural reaction is to cower in fear whenever he’s in the shot.
The 64-year-old actor carries with him a menacing presence that makes the Blind Man an even more oppressive villain. And once the character’s backstory unfolds, your perspective will flip.
The horror aspect aside, Don’t Breathe manages to squeeze in some observations about morality and hypocrisy into its bare-bones plot. But forget about social observations, because it’s the fright that counts – and the abundance of panicky moments here will leave you breathless.
Director: Fede Alvarez
Cast: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang