IN CINEMAS: 9th September
RUNNING TIME: 88 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Teenagers Rocky, Money and Alex burglarise wealthy homes in Detroit, but the results aren’t earning enough cash for them to fulfil their dreams of getting out of their impoverished home town. Tipped off about a house belonging to a blind Iraq War veteran who supposedly has a large sum of cash on his property due to an insurance settlement, Money talks the initially reluctant Rocky and Alex into a plan to break into his house at night and rob his safe. After all, how hard can it be to steal from a blind man? However, once inside the house, the trio soon find out that their victim isn’t anywhere near as helpless as they thought….
When Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake came out, we all liked it, but opinion was still divided in the HCF camp as to whether it was “excellent”, “very good” or just “good”. I think we all agreed though that it was just about as good a remake of a horror classic as one could expect, even if it was a film that didn’t really need to be made in the first place. It certainly marked the Uruguayan filmmaker, who had previously just made some short films, as a man to watch, and I was certainly keen to see what he would do next. I distinctly recall reading somewhere that Ivarez said that he partly made Don’t Breathe, which though set in Detroit was mostly shot in Hungary to minimise studio interference, as an answer to those who said that Evil Dead was too reliant on gore and special effects, and that he wanted to prove that he could make a more subtle piece. I’m not sure that he entirely succeeded in the latter because, while Don’t Breathe certainly relies much more on suspense, subtle it certainly isn’t except for perhaps during some of the violent scenes where explicit detail is minimised a bit. It’s possibly an even more intense experience than Evil Dead and at times is very uncomfortable indeed – none of this watered down ‘PG’13’ stuff for Alvarez – partly because of what’s taking place on screen and partly because it constantly blurs the line between good and evil and asks the viewer to shift his or her sympathies several times.
In short, it’s quite an impressive piece of work, making the very most of its initially simple premise and it’s largely single location, and showing that Alvarez has well and truly avoided the all-too-common curse of the disappointing second film. And yes, it is a horror film in so many ways – just ignore the comments by those who say it isn’t! One thing that I especially enjoyed about Don’t Breathe is how it often presents us with ideas and situations we’ve seen quite a few times before in recent horror films [or even older ones as you can partly see it as a wicked twist on Wait Until Dark – in fact, if I wanted to describe it to someone without revealing too much I’d call it a cross between Wait Until Dark, The People Under The Stairs and Panic Room], then turns them on their head. I must say right now though that this is yet another example of a film saddled with a trailer that gives a bit too much away, so, while it’s still a highly impressive film, it’s probably even more effective if you haven’t seen said trailer. There are a few moments that are a bit daft, and the screenplay Alvarez has co-written with his Evil Dead collaborator Rodo Sayagues does get sillier towards the end, but he orchestrates the thrills with the skill of a director who’s been doing this for decades, aided by some exceptional cinematography – take a bow Pedro Luque. Take the very brief opening scene where the camera adopts a bird’s eye view of a Detroit street, then slowly swoops down as you can just about make out two people walking on the road, before eventually revealing them to be a man dragging a possibly dead woman along. It’s a perfect beginning, immediately hooking and unsettling the viewer while at the same time establishing location in a good way.
Detroit, or certainly the area of Detroit where our three young protagonists reside, doesn’t seem to be a place in this film that’s worth staying in if you have hopes and dreams. It’s probably full of folk like Money, who acts all tough and like a gangster. He’s not very sympathetic at all, unlike Alex, who seems to only be along for all this because he fancies Rocky [I wouldn’t consider this as much of a spoiler, but I was so happy when, later on, we didn’t get the obligatory scene of scenes of the two becoming ‘close’, or kissing, or whatever], even though she’s going out with Money. Rocky is kind of in the middle morally between the other two. Jane Levy’s character in Evil Dead wasn’t that likeable [though I’m not sure that was intentional], and here she plays another heroine who you’re not sure you want to get behind at times, though it’s understandable that she’s the way she is as her father left when she was young and her now-alcoholic mother, in an almost glossed over background detail which isn’t referred to again, treated her in a manner which virtually counts as abuse. She also has a little sister whom she wants to take away with her to California, a detail that probably wasn’t needed, but never mind.
No time is wasted in this film – in fact I could have done with a bit more background – and the three, who are tired of stealing things for an employer who only gives them 60% of the value of the stolen goods, soon try to get into the house they intent to rob for themselves, something accomplished with a bit of difficulty and an expertly timed jump scare with a dog which is then conveniently absent for the next 45 minutes or so but which you know is going to turn up again eventually. The owner though proves to be no victim and not just someone who knows how to fight back but someone who is actually rather dangerous. The film then becomes a home invasion movie where the invaders want to get out of the house. I’m not going to reveal any more of the surprises the narrative has in store, but the rest of the film really is constant tension which is never really diminished despite the odd silly detail like one character who I thought died several times keeping on reviving [and no, it’s not the bogeyman], and some of the climactic portions are quite nerve-racking, even if Alvarez and Sayagues seemed to want to pay homage to Cujo rather too much towards the end.
The quality of the menace may very well be the most important ingredient of a horror film – if we’re not scared of the monster or killer or whatever onscreen, then why should the characters in the film be? Luckily Don’t Breathe has no trouble on that score. The Blind Man, as he’s called in the credits, is, like most of the best horror villains, frightening [something enhanced by him being often shot in extreme close-up] and convincing, but also just a little bit vulnerable and sympathetic. Watching him, it crossed my mind how quite a few horror menaces – in fact villains of any genre – have a disability or such. It shouldn’t add to the unease and fear they create, but it does, even though it perhaps reveals unpleasant deep rooted attitudes to disabled people which exist beneath the surface in most of us. In any case, Stephen Lang, an actor who I feel hasn’t really been used to his full potential in cinema, is given a great part here [which almost seems to reference some of his earlier roles] despite not speaking until near the end. Then again, his opponents are all well played too, Levy, I think, being an actress who is on her way to becoming a big star.
There is some virtuoso cinematography in this film, most notably a relatively early moment which may not quite have been shot in one take but sure looks like it, where we follow the characters through a couple of rooms, up the stairs, and into the Blind Man’s bedroom to show him asleep, then underneath the bed to reveal that there’s a gun strapped to the underside of the bed! The whole film has a great look to it, blue/green interiors virtually doing battle onscreen with the bright yellow coming in from the lights outside. The score by Roque Banos sounds so different from his Evil Dead score that you could mistake it from a different composer, yet it proves his versatility [how I felt like cheering about Alvarez refusing to budge when the producers of Evil Dead wanted to saddle the film with one of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control film scoring group robots to do the music!] with its more modern, electronic-based sound, enhanced by ordinary household objects or materials being used as instruments! I’ve spent the majority of this review praising Don’t Breathe, and yet I don’t want to give a false impression of it being a masterpiece. It’s rather contrived really and isn’t at all groundbreaking. It should also have probably ended a couple of minutes before it does, where I dare say we’re given the possibility of a sequel. It is, though, extremely well done within its limitations, especially as an exercise in winding up the viewer, and is genuinely exhausting in the right way….as well as to me being a significant advance over Evil Dead [I was, perhaps sadly, one of those who thought it was just “good”]. I can see Alvarez making true classics in the future.