Don’t Breathe (2016)

The only feature film director Fede Álvarez made before this was the reboot of Evil Dead. I noticed that as I’m a big fan of the original one by Sam Raimi but ultimately passed over watching it due to its atrocious ratings. This recent release however gained plenty of attention from critics and has a more than respectable Rotten Tomatoes rating. It even rated a mention in the Crash Course Film History series of videos I’ve been following on YouTube. That’s more than enough to be worth a shot I think.

Three youths burglarize houses in Detroit, taking advantage of the fact the father of one of them owns a security company. One night they go for a big score, targeting the home of a former soldier who they have heard keeps a large amount of cash from a legal settlement. When they case the place, they notice that the man has a large and fierce dog but are cheered when they find the man himself seems to be completely blind. At first things go well as they gain entry and drug the dog. Then the blind man wakes up and confronts them. One of the group pulls out a gun but he is disarmed and swiftly killed. The remaining two, Rocky and Alex, soon realize that despite being blind, the man’s superior skills, familiarity with his own house and mercilessness makes him the predator and them the prey. The horror only grows worse when they discover that the man has a dark secret of his own in his basement.

This is one of those low budget productions with unknown performers and is set pretty much entirely within one house. However it struck a chord with both critics and the general public, grossing over US$150 million on a budget of less than US$10 million. Those are pretty impressive numbers and there’s good reason for it. The directing is tight, with a elevated sense of peril throughout. Having the blind soldier being essentially the monster of the film is ingenious. The scenario is a familiar one from other films and video games but since in this case he’s a supremely competent human being with a severe weakness that we easily understand and isn’t supernatural, the audience has a much more concrete idea what he can or can’t plausibly do. There’s no need to wrestle with vaguely defined superpowers and we can see for ourselves how the protagonists have a chance of fighting back, albeit a slim one. This grounds the movie and makes the danger feel more real. They use essentially the same technique with the dog which is turned into a plausibly threatening secondary opponent.

At the same time, it’s also illuminating to consider why this might be a decent horror film but is very far from being a great one. Rather than being truly inventive, the film maintains tension levels and holds audience attention by layering on twist after twist to prevent the characters from reaching safety yet stave off total defeat. This actually stretches credulity. At one point we see one of the characters being apparently killed but it turns out the soldier missed. The characters are trapped in a room and checks that the windows are barred, yet the dog manages to knock them out of the room just the same. The characters are generic cut-outs from central casting with little personality or originality. It kind of stands out that none of the characters are black when you know that the population of Detroit is something like 80% black. Why even set it in Detroit then? The film’s faults are even more evident when you compare it to the truly great horror of this year, Get Out, which is intelligent in all of the ways that Don’t Breathe is merely adequate.

Don’t get me wrong. This is still good craftsmanship and perfectly cromulent entertainment but this title doesn’t aspire to be anything more than that.

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