DON’T BREATHE 2
Directed by Rodo Sayagues
Horror has a sequel problem – it often seems like anything which makes money becomes a franchise. Hence, we have 11 Children of the Corn flicks, 8 Howlings, and even 2 Rosemary’s Babies. But, of course, not all movies need them – often, the story is told well, and self-contained enough that anything more would ruin it. 2016’s Don’t Breathe (expertly reviewed by Doc here) was one such example: a dark, tense twist on home-invasion horror that many people loved.
In this long-promised follow-up, producer-turned director Rodo Sayagues changes the focus from those breaking into the blind Joseph Fritzl at the film’s centre. Nordstrom (Lang) now lives in small-town America with a young girl Phoenix (Grace), who calls him daddy. Was she born from a rape via turkey-baster? All will be revealed. Regardless, he’s raising her to be a survivor and tries his best to keep her in the house. Enter a band of Ne’er-do-wells, lead by Raylan (Sexton III), that want to take her away from him for reasons too silly to mention here. From there, the plot goes places that are at best outlandish and, at worst, unintentionally funny.
So, there we go – it’s a bit like the original Don’t Breathe – with some people trying to break into a blind guy’s house to steal something (admittedly, this time it’s a person). Only where that film subverted the home invasion subgenre, with the thieves finding themselves out of their depth, for the first half Don’t Breathe 2 is a far more typical outing. Then it goes off the rails, resembling John Wick down to the dead canine motivation. Albeit with a slow, sludgy aesthetic and a complete dick as our protagonist. This last point is maybe the movie’s biggest, and most inevitable, problem: Don’t Breathe 2 is that sort of sequel where a knowledge of the first film completely spoils it. Try as he may, the typically competent Lang can’t make Nordstrom sympathetic. Part of this comes down to the austere script, in which he hasn’t much to do but stare gruffly, but most of it comes from viewers knowing what he kept in his basement before.
There’s some attempt to acknowledge what he’s done in the third act, though it’s too little too late: a redemption arc where the writers don’t seem to want to confront the darker parts of their property. Nordstrom gets a largely unearned blank slate, lacking the introspection or accountability you’d expect from a sequel. It takes a lot to make an audience invest in someone as loathsome as Nordstrom – I’m thinking of The Devil’s Rejects, which rubbed our collective faces in the horrific things the Fireflies have done. Don’t Breathe 2 takes the opposite approach, using a silencer where it should be a blunderbuss – largely omitting his crimes in a way that neither challenges nor respects people watching. As a positive, Madelyn Grace works hard for our sympathies, and, to be fair, the film is definitely at its best when we follow Phoenix. It’s an old trick to get the audience engaged – put a kid in danger. Still, she’s a very natural performer who sells the danger of scenes way more than the poorly sketched villains otherwise would. I guess the tactic is to bill it as monster vs monster – with baddies even worse than Nordstrom. Though for this framing to work the monsters either need to be likeable enough to overlook past sins or they need to take ownership for them.
Nonetheless, there are diamonds in the rough: a long, tracking shot during the first act is as impressive as anything from the first film. And though the fight scenes are clumsy, we do get some decent money shots. Unfortunately, however, the later sections in this one, where Phoenix is more passive, are dull and unrewarding. They have none of the personal stakes or grounded motivations need to make the character drama story work, and the now signature absence of light is more annoying than frightening. It all becomes a bit too daft – especially after the writers find themselves trapped in a corner. But no worries – here comes a dog ex machina to help them find their way in the dark: a device so lazy the characters even mock it. Still, at least it’s not predictable – the abductors’ motivation is a patchwork of tropes, each of which works against their methods. There are so many points when the oafs risk killing a character they want to stay alive. Fundamental lapses in logic like this would stand out in an indy movie but seem bizarre in something big budget.
On a recent podcast, I suggested Don’t Breathe 2 could be pretty good – with it being so long since the last and seeming so unnecessary. Hence in a roundabout way, I thought it’d surprise me. Maybe the bad trailer was a bluff, disguising a clever premise! But nope – it’s entirely as pointless and morally dubious as you’d expect. Fingers crossed that Halloween Kills doesn’t go the same way. On a minor point, when watching, I had hayfever sniffles. It didn’t make the movie any worse, but it did make me wonder if the few other people at the screening would think I was moved to tears by it. Who knows – maybe next time.