Fede Alvarez continues making a name for himself within the horror genre with this tense and, pretty unashamedly brutal, psychological thriller Don't Breathe, starring Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette and Jane Levy.
Feeling held back by their home lives in Detroit, Michigan, 20-somethings Rocky (Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Minnette) are desperate to follow in their friends' footsteps, move out of the area and give themselves brand new starts. Desperately short on funds, the group turn to burglary in the hopes that they'll pool together enough money to relocate to California. So when they learn that an old Gulf War veteran is sitting on $300,000 worth of settlement following the death of his daughter, their opportunist instinct kicks in and they can practically taste the freedom.
Scoping out their target first, they become even more optimistic when they discover that the man lives in an almost derelict neighbourhood and is completely blind, leaving Rocky and co believing that this theft is going to be a walk in the park.
Little do they know however, their victim is far from helpless and the trio soon find themselves fighting for their lives while also discovering some dark secrets about their now deadly adversary too.
There's been some dispute as to whether Don't Breathe can really be called a horror movie. The opening shot, which sees Lang dragging a bloodied, seemingly lifeless Levy by the hair behind him reeks of the genre, as does the typeface used for the onscreen title. But there's no denying that the film does boast far less jump scares or lacks those typical "horror" elements that you might expect.
However, the sudden gear change from the trio's overly cocky, blasé search for the jackpot, recklessly treading on creaky floorboards, smashing windows and loudly chatting, to them becoming the helpless prey of a man much more capable than they first gave him credit for is jarring and that's exactly how Alvarez wants you to feel. On edge. Nerves shredded. As if you weren't ready, (just like they weren't) and boy, once that moment comes, it never lets up. Each time you think that the robbers have a chance to get away, it wallops them [and you] in the face with another obstacle, escalating the terror unravelling on screen tenfold. The longer they're trapped, the less optimistic you become that they'll make it out...
Don't Breathe is a surefire shock to the senses and it's effect on you will likely be a lasting one and for that, it's deserving of the horror label, albeit unconventional. Alvarez is far from a stranger to helming horrors after all, having made his full-length feature debut with 2013 remake to Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, so it's understandable that the film leans towards "the scary" despite not embracing it wholeheartedly. It's a blessing though, as it's clear that the director has learnt a few things since that outing when it comes to Don't Breathe, focusing more on tension and unrelenting pace rather than gross out.
While many enjoyed Evil Dead, some found the gore overtly gratuitous, particularly in comparison to the now-quite-tame 1981 original. Additionally, aside from the violence, no scene was all that memorable, whereas a number of silent sequences are likely to stick with you after watching Don't Breathe. One particularly standout scene sees The Blind Man plunge his opponents into darkness, forcing them to stumble around wide-eyed in the pitch black while he stalks them in his familiar surroundings.
That's not to say Don't Breathe doesn't pack some punch in the violence stakes. Throughout, we see people get punched in the face, fall through ceilings, shot, strangled, chained up, stabbed with garden shears, hit with crow bars, chased through an air vent by a snarling, vicious guard dog and even subjected to a horrifying home medical procedure... Heck, we said it didn't let up.
It's not all perfect filmmaking however. Something that sits a little uneasy in the movie, is how we're supposed to feel immediate empathy for the thieves as soon as everything starts going south. Fortunately, Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues follow through with the age-old tradition of killing the douche in the group early on, which helps, but unlike Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room – which will inevitably be compared to Don't Breathe given its closeness in tone and plot – these young'uns don't just stumble into the wrong place at the wrong time. They waltz right into the situation willingly, and throughout, you can't help but keep remembering that.
Perhaps the awkwardness of the situation also comes from our experience with home invasion horror-thrillers. Typically, we see the criminals condemned to a grizzly end while the victims get their own back in a justified way. Basically, there's a standard hero and villain set-up. Here, it turns the concept on its head almost immediately leaving you a little dazed but once things start being revealed about Blind Man, you eventually come round.
With a no-fuss script, slow roll of dread and brilliant pacing, Don't Breathe is likely to please those who enjoy their scares a little more realistic. One things for certain though, by the time the credits roll, you won't be sure whether its title is describing itself or whether it's a subliminal message aimed towards you and the reason behind your lack of inhalation for the last 88 minutes.