While complaining about remakes of classic movies has become, in itself, a cliché – and admittedly most remakes aren’t that interesting, barely justifying their existence beyond a pandering nostalgia hit for a loyal fan base and a financial opportunity – there are quite a few good ones in the bunch. In particular, 2013’s Evil Dead twisted the lore of dark comedic malevolence into a splattering exhibition of pain and proved fruitful, adding unexplored dynamics and a serious tone to separate it from its more humorous brethren. The film’s director, Fede Alvarez, immediately joined the wave of new horror directors creating modern cult classics, allowing the genre to soak in change and leaving fans eagerly awaiting their next string of projects. For Fede, the long wait is over, his return marked by an original picture entitled Don’t Breathe. But can Fede replicate the success and acclaim that his first commercial picture garnered or will his original film fall short of the remake that put him on the map?
Don’t Breathe is the overnight tale of a group of ne’er do well friends breaking into the house of a blind man, seeking his large fortune and an easy exit from their derelict Detroit surroundings. Yet this old man isn’t as frail or defenseless as they thought, finding themselves in a cat and mouse game of secrets, violence and darkness. The director/producer duo of Fede Alvarez and the legendary Sam Raimi returns once again, as does Fede’s muse, Jane Levy, who plays Rocky. Playing Levy’s crew of bandits are Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto, acting as the characters Alex and Money respectively. The films villain, The Blind Man, is portrayed by Stephen Lang, who’s proving more and more that he deserves that Cable spot in Deadpool 2.
Right from the start, it’s best to alter the expectation of this film to be a through and through horror picture, to more of a thriller with certain horror elements spread throughout. This doesn’t mean the film lacks any menace or grit, but it’s a completely different beast than what was expected of it. And what a beast it is.
The horror found in the dilapidation of the American landscape is captured perfectly. The setting is terrifying without any added decoration; the exterior showcases the emptiness of the outer boroughs and suburbs of Detroit, mangled and unmaintained. The interior of The Blind Man’s home is eerily claustrophobic, dimly lit and wound tight by skinny hallways and heaps of junk. Fede sends the camera on a walkthrough of what will be the audiences home for the next hour and change, performing a swan-like tour through trash and darkness that’s very reminiscent of a similar shot found in David Fincher’s Panic Room. The devotion to the silence and overall sound design adds to the atmosphere, leaving you not wanting to move a muscle as each moment compounds on each other. It’s that attention to angles and details, that alertness to homage and when to use it that allows the film to manufacture this constant feeling of being trapped and never having the upper hand. And for the characters of this film that’s a death sentence.
Don’t Breathe puts its characters at an interesting intersection. On one side you have a set of thieves robbing an old blind man, all for money, thrills and unrequited love. On the other side of that you have an old blind man, whose ex-military and holds more secrets than he lets on. Both sides are brimming with evil, in their intentions and their hearts, yet as the film goes on, one side of that spectrum outweighs the other and you find yourself flipping sides of who you trust and who you want to see make it out alive. The film pulls the wool over your eyes when it comes to these characters and their motivations, pivoting and pushing them all together into a cauldron of tension and fear.
Once again Jane Levy brings another powerful performance, using her large expressive eyes to visualize the sheer fright that her character goes through. Just as in Evil Dead, she’s put through the ringer, finding herself battered, bruised and scarred, though still being pursued. Her character Rocky is murky, gliding the line between noble and manipulative ever so carefully – but despite this, you’ll hold your breath with her whenever there’s a chance she’ll meet The Blind Man or get into a sticky situation. Dylan Minnette comes through with a solid performance, adding depth and a sort of heroism that Fede Alvarez places as a continuously moving chess piece on the board. Stephen Lang is a literal hulk, growling and huffing like an animal as he searches his house, barking his lines and tossing the robbers around like ragdolls. Blindness doesn’t detract from his character’s menace at all, pulling himself and his victims into his own battleground, the shadows. His gunshots are always an inch away from the robbers, piercing through the air and right at the heart of the audience. The Blind Man is a physical force, an entity whose disability only adds to the myth and serves not to just shock but to instill fear.
Despite the attention to detail and the strong performances from Levy and Lang, the film manages to detract from itself by forgetting its own rules and sometimes changing them. Comparable to this summer’s horror hit, Light’s Out, Don’t Breathe has moments where villain isn’t as perceptive as they once were or matches to perform an act that they obviously shouldn’t be able to do. Another flaw to this film is the last thirty minutes, all of which feels like a never ending string of finales. It’s as if every ending attached to each draft of the script squirmed its way into the movie, with the real ending to the movie feeling as it came too late. It’s just exhaustive.
Don’t Breathe has you constantly at the edge of your seat and pushed back into the cushion. Fede Alvarez managed to create an almost Hitchcockian thriller, detailed with the best elements of Wait Until Dark and his own twisted sense of insanity. Don’t Breathe caps off the summer’s excellent run of mainstream horror and adds to the mushrooming catalog of Fede Alvarez’s hits.