Free from the baggage of remaking a cult classic, as was his 2013 feature film debut Evil Dead, director Fede Alvarez has opted to make a dense, minimal thriller of his very own. Made with the co-operation of the producers from Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe is a claustrophobic, grueling riff on the cabin in the woods formula that proves that Alvarez’s initial success wasn’t just a one-off.
Much of the setup here is familiar territory – three late-teens/20-somethings end up trapped in a house with a seemingly unstoppable force without any chance of help, leaving them to survive by the skin of their teeth. But like all memorable horror, the devil is in the details. The kids in this instance aren’t innocent, wistful holidayers; they’re career crooks. There’s Rocky (Jane Levy), who’s stealing money to afford to move away from her abusive family, Alex (Dylan Minette), who fancies Rocky and wants to follow her and Money (Daniel Zovatto), the one who’s actually just in it for personal gain.
After receiving a tip about a blind veteran living alone in a run-down street sitting on a pile of cash, the three decide to go for one last big heist so they can fulfil what they got into crime to do. What they didn’t expect is that when things go wrong, they’d end up against evil Daredevil as the blind vet protects his home from the invaders.
The thing that makes Don’t Breathe truly work is how well organized it is. Given the talent involved, it’s not surprising – producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert have made a few of these kind of things by now – but it’s still impressive how spatially aware the movie is. From when the group make their initial break-in to them getting chased down through the house, every movement made is concise and obeys a strong sense of geography. Using a heightened sense of hearing, the Blind Man, played by Stephen Lang, hunts the protagonists darkened room by darkened room. Military trained, the dulled brown composure of the rundown house swiftly makes the man seem like a supernatural predator, practically coming out of the walls on occasion to lend a jump-scare.
Carried along by the daggered ambience of Roque Banos‘ unsettling soundtrack, this hunt would’ve been effective enough on its own. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayague had other plans in mind though, and jam in one last twist just to make good on the movie’s tension. While the big reveal likely won’t phase genre fans much, the perverse back-story it introduces should provide a suitable shudder and pause. It’s helpful that Levy and Lang deliver such hefty performances, too. Lang demonstrates why he’s become such a fine choice for rugged, hard-hitting military-types. As the title suggests, there’s little dialogue, but when there is a little extra exposition, the words are given their appropriate due.
Heavy-handed though his approach is, Alvarez works through his own menacing setup with commendable dedication to narrative. Though there are moments of disgust, Don’t Breathe is always moving, making sure to avoid becoming known only for the moments where you might nearly lose your lunch. The film comes together with a sterner resolve in-keeping with the more earthed sense of terror and imagery. Considering this is the same team that included a tongue being ripped in half length-ways in real-time in their last venture, this added humility is very welcome.
The one major downside to Don’t Breathe is that if you weren’t a fan of the blacked out, bumptious work of the Evil Dead remake, this is more of the same in construction in many respects. The violence is as jagged and harsh and the pacing as blunt. But, this is also a film about a group of people trapped in a small space with a force beyond their measure made by the guys who collectively have four Evil Deads between them. They do this shit really, really well. Yeah, there’s a couple of false finishes too many and a little too much work done to acknowledge EVERY plot device, but when the tour’s this good, a couple of cracks in the wall don’t matter much. If there was any doubt over Alvarez‘s abilities as a director, they’ve just been silenced.