In a year that’s been a surprisingly good one for the horror genre, Don’t Breathe is another genuinely scary and well-executed film. Just when viewers thought that the idea of a group of helpless young people trapped inside a psychopath’s house was overdone, director Fede Alvarez has outdone even some of the best modern horror films, and in turn created a Hitchcockian level thriller which every film buff should see.
The film’s premise is simple: a group of friends plan the ultimate heist by breaking into the house of a wealthy blind man (who’s brilliantly portrayed by Stephen Lang), but things go terribly wrong in the process. While they’ve been robbing houses for some time now, their plan is for this to be their last job. Rocky (Jane Levy), the group’s leader, wants the money so she can start a new life in California with her sister. Likewise, her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) want out of their own troubles.
Yet as is expected from a film like this, Lang’s character isn’t the helpless blind man they were anticipating, but a Gulf War veteran turned ruthless serial killer. Once the blind man discovers Rocky and company lurking inside his house, the group desperately tries to make it out alive.
Don’t Breathe stems from the minds of the 2013 Evil Dead remake, which I personally wasn’t a fan of. Whereas that film is a prime example of the kind of relentless gore spectacles that are so popular in the modern age of horror, Don’t Breathe is a more nuanced thriller. Here, Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues demonstrate the effect of limiting the amount of graphic violence in favor of intensifying the level of tension in each scene. The fact that the movie opens with a flash forward of the blind man dragging a bloody and worn-down Rocky down an empty street only adds to the suspense, as viewers are left wondering how and when the story will reach this point, and whether our protagonist will survive.
That said, Alvarez also manages to create a claustrophobic interior atmosphere without overdoing it. Part of this stems from his rejecting the overtly exhausted handheld camera approach, and instead pacing each shot length for dramatic effect. Both he and cinematographer Pedro Luque know just when to cut away and when to fixate on a particular image, thus leaving viewers on the edge of their seats. The film is a work of cinematic precision that refuses to let its audience go until the very end.
In terms of performances, Lang definitely steals the show as the sadistic villain. While most audiences know him from Avatar, here he takes things up a notch by showing how much he can do with barely any dialogue. Every moment he’s on screen is chilling, with his brute physicality culminating with his devilishly cold facial expressions. What’s more is that Alvarez and Sayagues give his character an interesting, albeit simple, backstory which makes the third act all the more suspenseful.
Likewise, Levy’s character is a more than formidable protagonist. Though there are the “Why are you going that way!” moments, Levy and her co-stars give viewers enough reasons to root for them. It helps too that she and Minnette have some solid chemistry, even if Alex’s character can make some especially poor decisions during several scenes, such as not shutting up when the killer is a few feet away.
What’s interesting about Don’t Breathe is that it comes just a few months after the Netflix original Hush, another recent horror gem. Whereas Hush is about a deaf woman who finds herself up against a serial killer, Don’t Breathe flips things by making its villain disabled. It’s an interesting concept which pays off well, as this film is a must-see for horror aficionados, as well as an exciting thriller for the average viewer.