I love talking about what makes a good horror movie. Maybe more than any other genre (possibly tied with comedy), horror divides people in so many ways that thesis after thesis could be written on what one person finds scary, why, why not and so on and so forth. You can find more than one example of me harping on the topic on this very blog if you look hard enough.
There’s been a small but noticeable trend in horror over the past 3 or 4 years. It isn’t momentous but a substantial bar has been raising year after year in wide-release horror films, meaning we generally better horror films put out in local theaters more frequently. And by better I mean recent films like It Follows, The Babadook, the 2013 Evil Dead, Green Room, Cabin in the Woods, The Witch and The Guest. Even The Conjuring films, which I wasn’t overtly impressed by, are by-and-large better than many of their big-budget counterparts. There is still an overwhelming majority of better material in the on-demand rack, but its nice to see studios Oft times the best stuff is hidden among the pack of the worst of the worst you go looking for at 1 in the morning because you’re stoned and need something to watch/laugh at. All of those movies I previously mentioned I was lucky enough to see in the theater and I live in the Midwest, a part of the country where art house and indie theaters are hard to come by.
After Evil Dead (a movie that had no business being even half as good as it was), I am completely on board with whatever director/writer Fede Alvarez has to dish out particularly if it’s a horror film. Upon seeing the trailer for Don’t Breathe, it shot almost immediately on the higher end spectrum of movies I NEEDED to see before the end of the year. I’d put it even higher than Rouge One and a good number of the remaining major (sure to be disappointing) franchise films the remainder of the year has in store for us.
Now, I never want to “oversell” any movie, particularly one that operates like Don’t Breathe.
Part of a reviewers job should be to levy expectations. Otherwise those that read said review may go into a movie with a pre-determined bar that no one film can ever reach. That’s not fair to audience or the film itself.
Don’t Breathe isn’t going to change your life, or at I at least don’t think it will. Not many movies are really ever going to do that unless you worked on them or they motivate you to improve on who you are as a person. (That was The Social Network for me, for example.)
What it will do however, is take you on an absolute ride; something this summer has sorely lacked at least where the local cineplex is concerned. Whether that comes at the film’s determent with subsequent viewings is something I’ll get to momentarily.
I’m going to keep this review relatively short because I’d love to keep a lot of the surprises in tact and it’s just so good I don’t want to simply place my nose firmly up its ass. Better to keep my fingers rested for the next flop I see….
Author’s note: I typically pull from IMDb for a film’s synopsis but their’s for this film is way too spoiler-y for my tastes so I’m going to reword it a bit.
Rocky (Jane Levy), a young woman wanting to start a better life for her and her sister, agrees to take part in the robbery of a house owned by a wealthy blind man (Stephen Lang) with her boyfriend Money and their friend Alex. But when the blind man turns out to be a bigger threat than anticipated, the trio, they’ll experience a night more deadly than the could have ever imagined.
Many, many decades after the Audrey Hepburn classic, Wait Until Dark pitted a blind heroine against the three crooks trying to break into her home, along comes Don’t Breathe to go above and beyond in terms of successfully reversing the scenario. Now we have terrified criminals as our heroes hiding in plain sight from a psychopath the should never have crossed. Their obstacles? Creaky floorboards, unsuppressed breathing, narrow thin hallways, bumping into objects and any other sounds we take for granted.
It was this very basic yet intriguing premise (combined with Alvarez’s involvement) that were enough to get my ass in the seat. Having now seen this, the highest compliment I can pay the man on how much of an emphasis making cinema an experience. Where the script may be lacking, he makes up for in every sense going into overdrive and exercises every trick in the book to make sure the audience feel rewarded for providing their funds and time to his product. He aims for the stars, ensuring you never forget what you just saw. In other words, he makes movies that remind of what a singular experience watching a movie is. They just happen to be horror films.
His last film literally relied on buckets and buckets of blood and mountains and mountains of practical effects for its thrills, which is 100% A-Okay as it was a fucking Evil Dead remake.
It makes sense that he’d opt for a complete 180 on his next film in terms of scale which is impressive given the earlier film also revolves around a single location. Whereas that movie was about keeping the monsters out, Don’t Breathe is all about escape, both literally and figuratively.
Right off the bat, I feel safe in saying this just may be the most technically efficient film I’ve seen all year. Not a moment is wasted and everything builds towards an the climax. For example, we maybe get 15 minutes with our three leads before they set out for the score of a lifetime. In hindsight, that’s really all we need to get a sense of who these people are. Sure, some are favored over others but it’s incredibly efficient to keep things relatively simple on a movie build around such a basic concept. Once are “heroes” are in the house, there isn’t going to be a single second your at ease for a good reminder of the movie.
And that extends to the camera work as well. Cinematographer Pedro Luque glides through each room, between people, giving a sense of painful urgency as if we too are trapped in this nightmare house. There’s a masterful shot early on that takes across the house, room to room, setting up important bits along the way.
Often times the use of “Chekov’s gun” can be a little obnoxious, particularly in a horror movie. This movie had several and each and every one of them worked. Even the use of a dog, usually an element that gets tossed off unless it’s the main monster, feels important and shocking here. I loved how Luque gives his location a sense of scale, importance and detail that ultimately work far in favor to the film’s success. By the end of the take, we know just about every nook and cranny as well as the Blind Man does. The film uses long takes to give it immediacy and pitch perfect sound design that makes every gunshot sound like a cannon going off and uses silence as a key to building tension. And breaking that silence will almost certainly mean death.
The only section of the house we aren’t made privy to in the aforementioned tracking shot is the basement, which leads to perhaps the best sequence of the movie in which all of our characters are placed upon an even playing field. It harkens back to a similar sequence in Silence of the Lambs…
Like our young thieves, we have no idea who or what’s around the next corner. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the scariest scene any movie has pulled off since the much cited introduction of Mr. Babadook. Which brings me to a quick point I don’t know if I’ve harped on in the past or not but perhaps the most underrated aspect of the horror genre is sound design. Well placed sounds can go a long way in term of creating mood and spiking tension. Knowing when to cut music, add music, amplify noises, dull them and more is a talent in an of itself and a lot of the most successful scares in Don’t Breathe stem straight from sound design. If this were a just world, horror films (those that use sound in such a strong, concise way as this film) would lead the pack for the awards come Oscar season.
You can easily pick away at this film’s plot. It’s a horror movie after all and character’s make stupid decisions. If we were dealing with certified geniuses you’d end up with something like this…
That isn’t to say the characters are one note, or even the meat bags we’ve grown accustomed to in modern horror. Quite the opposite actually.
Teaming up once again with Jane Levy, Alvarez puts his leading actress through the same emotional and physical ringer he did with Evil Dead. One can’t help but draw parallels between Sam Raimi (another returning Alvarez collaborator) and Bruce Campbell. The two truly brought out the best in one another and the same could be said of Levy and Alvarez.
By and large, Levy’s Rocky is given the most to do in terms of actual depth and characterization. Her two cohorts (played by Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) still feel important, albeit a little less developed. This isn’t really a fault; more of an observation. It’d have been nice to get a better sense of who the other guys are, but for what it’s worth, they make their mark.
While we’re on the subject of the film’s cast, let’s talk a little bit about our monster….
It wouldn’t be fair to say Stephen Lang’s role as The Blind Man (he is never formally named in the film) is a “star-making” performance. The man has been putting out solid work for decades, not to mention he is a major player in a little movie called Avatar you may or may not have heard of from a few years back.
However, I am fully comfortable in saying that this is most he’s popped in a role in a few years; Avatar included. He utters hardly any dialogue and yet you feel like you know this character from the get go, that is until Alavarez flip those expectations on their collective heads in the third act. Still, Lang never loses sight (haha) of the humanity of our monster. He’s a man unable to deal with a horrific amount of grief he’s suffered both at war (he’s a veteran) and at home, all of which has calcified into complete and utter insanity.
I can already foresee Lang’s character sticking in the craw of more skeptical viewers. The Blind Man’s disability is more of a device than something that should be henpecked to the death. Yes, one minute, he’s realistically impaired. In another, he may as well be Daredevil. It’s a way for Alvarez to toy around with conventions of the home invasion genre, creating whole new ways for establishing tension.
Look, as with any horror film, there are some additional tiny logic nitpicks. Cynics are going to have a blast picking apart why one aspect doesn’t make sense or what have you. I participate in those conversations rather frequently, but when the logic leaps ultimately service a good film by making it better, I argue: why ruin a good thing? Yes, characters are going to make dumb decisions. It is from this we derive conflict, or you know, a basic fundamental element of story-telling.
The final twist regarding Lang’s character is utterly creepy and horrific. No spoilers, but chances are you’re not going to see it coming, at least not specifically. I certainly didn’t and I’m not sure how I felt about it. On one hand, it gets the reaction it sets out for. On the other, it’s the closest the movie comes to “over-doing it” so to speak. There’s never really a dip into “torture porn” territory (i.e. relying heavily on human misery to conjure either scares or enjoyment from an audience which filmmakers like Eli Roth seem to exclusively operate in rather than craft a genuinely scary film), for which I was thankful.
Back in the preface, I mentioned that the excitement I have for this movie may dwindle upon subsequent viewings. I say that because, and this ties in with what I actually like most about Alvarez as a filmmaker, because you can only have an experience so many times before it grows stale. I can never experience this film for the first time again and I work that it won’t be able to walk as confidently on its two legs once all the shocks and surprises are mapped out in front of me. Upon a second, third and fourth viewing, I’m sure the razor thin tension I felt the first time will surly have faded at least somewhat but my ultimate hope is it still operates as a compelling movie I’ll actually want to revisit, examine and find new things each and every time I watch it again.
What I will say is seek this movie out while it’s still showing on the big screen. It’s one of those rare movies that actual is serviced better by the communal experience of sitting in a dark theater. Once you’ve seen as many movies as I have (not many at all when put side-to-side with actual professional review), it’s sometimes easy to forget how much fun of an experience a movie can be. To actually lose yourself in a movie, forget that what you’re watching is fake and let the magic only cinema can provide is a diamond in the rough; ironic since we’re slowly but surly moving to an age that favors immersion through bells and whistles. Then along comes Don’t Breathe, a low-cost thriller that sucked me in more effectively than Avatar and Gravity combined and I didn’t even have to pay extra for 3-D glasses.
I will warn you that seeing this in theater theater comes with some cons however. The theater I saw it in – that would be the Cinemark Tinseltown in Oklahoma City – saw one of the most involved audiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting through a movie with, culminating in one of the best/worst theater experiences of my entire life…thus far. In some instances its great to have an audience gasp, squirm, laugh and scream alongside you. It’s another to have certain members text during the film or talk to the movie as if there is a participation round in which we, the audience, effect the outcome. I sure the Alamo Drafthouse did something extra special by warning death by blind man should any member of the audience feel the need to talk or text. I sure as hell wish mine did.