Relentlessly tense and shocking, Don't Breathe has a surprisingly apt title considering that it's only by the end credits that you realise that you haven't.
Opening a week before Blair Witch, Don’t Breathe, even before it has hardly seen the light of day has its work cut out for it. Fede Alvarez’s sophomore effort is likely going to struggle to find it’s audience once the cult horror franchise makes it’s return. Having previously helmed the entertainingly blood-soaked Evil Dead remake, he stated that he wanted to change pace with this feature, away from the bloody mayhem and to explore the depths of psychological horror and stripped down, bare tension. If that was his primary aim whilst making Don’t Breathe, he’s certainly delivered.
Introduced to the main players early on, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto play a trio of robbers who break into homes and burgle them. Having got a tip about a gig which could land them $300,000, they attempt to retrieve it from under the nose of its blind owner. Little did they know that he isn’t as helpless as he seems.
The genius of this effort is that whilst not exactly reinventing the wheel, Alvarez flips the concept of a home invasion movie and places the invaders in peril and the home owner the force of nature that they are attempting to outwit. What surprised me, from the moment ‘The Blind Man’ appears is how ruthless and down right nasty the film becomes. At no point did it shy away from the horror of some of the situations. Although the idea of blindness has been utilized in both the horror and thriller genre, the idea that infact his blindness makes him an even more terrifying adversary is one that we haven’t witnessed yet and boy do they use it well.
When The Blind Man appears in the same room as our protagonists (or antagonists depending on how you see them) the film goes practically silent, but the silence is deafening. Every part of your body seizes up and you grip your seat whilst Alvarez ratchets up the tension to breaking point. Deliberately opting not to indulge himself to producing a deluge of cheap jump scares, instead he opts for sickening tension and an uneasy mise-en-scene. Furthermore, instead of playing it completely straightforward, Alvarez and scribe Rodo Sayagues incorporate some genuinely shocking twists, some of which will leave audiences grimacing in disgust, but which makes the film all the more better for it.
Despite the stripped down, small-scale nature of the story, Alvarez directs with flair. He knows how to control his audience, when to build the tension and turn it up to 11 and pay it off or to hold us in suspense, breathlessly awaiting what he serves up next. One particularly great scene follows the intruders initially breaking into the house and searching for the money. From the moment they break in, it’s filmed in a manor that makes it look like they systematically split up and go through the property in a single take. It both simultaneously builds the tension and also gives us an idea of how the house is set up, which is useful as later in the film it doesn’t attempt to cheat the audience with a deux-ex-machina magically appearing door for the boogyman to jump out of. Most of the films tight 88 minutes is spent in a dark/dimly lit house but Alvarez does well to make sure we are always able to see what’s actually going on and stays away from using headache inducing editing or any form of shaky cam.
The film essentially only has four characters so in terms of fleshing those characters out and making them believable, the main players had a lot to do. Jane Levy plays her role very well. None of these robbers, in my opinion, are likeable people. But Levy, more so than Minnette and Zovatto, injects some humanity and vulnerability. There’s just enough sprinkling of a backstory to give us context and a reason to root for her to survive the night, which is more than what you can usually say for characters in the horror genre. The real standout however, is Stephen Lang as The Blind Man. As I mentioned earlier, his character is a force of freakin’ nature. The cold-blooded, brutal approach to his defending of the money and his home is unfolded in terrifying fashion. Any shred of humanity is shed from his portrayal of a grieving father. When the twists come thick and fast in the third act, Land sells them with grim efficiency. Along with Patrick Stewart in Green Room, Lang has portrayed one of the scariest and bone-chilling villains this year.
Showing he’s equally adept at pleasing gorehounds and psychological horror fans alike, Fede Alvarez is quickly establishing his reputation as one of the up and coming horror directors of this current generation.
Don’t Breathe (2016), directed by Fede Alvarez, is distributed in the UK by Sony Pictures. Certificate 15.