Film Review: ‘Don’t Breathe’ is a nearly relentless horror outing

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dont_breathe_ver4Two feature length horror outings in, director Fede Alvarez is establishing himself as a genre filmmaker to watch out for. Now, both his Evil Dead remake as well as this movie, the home invasion fright flick Don’t Breathe, are flawed to one degree or another, but he has quite a feel for how to torture his audiences in a good way. While I don’t agree with the praise calling it the best horror film of the last 20 years, it’s certainly one of the better ones of 2016 so far, at least.

Alvarez takes a very simple premise, twists it just a bit, and mostly focuses on ratcheting the tension level to higher and higher degrees. There are only a few missteps, though one of the biggest is the decision to begin with a scene set well into the third act, defusing what could have been a chilling moment. It’s an effective opening image, but it ends up diminishing a further attempt at terror.

Don’t Breathe has a few odd choices like that, but by and large it’s a strong entry into the home invasion sub-genre, with the added bonus of having you feel for the invaders and initially not knowing what to think about the homeowner. It all helps separate the movie from the rest of the pack, at least to some degree. Don’t Breathe doesn’t re-define horror, but it’s pretty unsettling and almost relentless in its desire to keep you on the edge of your seat.

There’s minimal set up here, which actually isn’t a bad choice. We meet a trio of friends in Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) who have a tendency to rob the houses utilizing the security company that Alex’s father works for, always being careful not to take enough to make it too big of a crime. Money seems to enjoy the rush, Rocky is trying to raise capital in order to move to California with her young daughter, while Alex perhaps just wants to impress Rocky.

When Money comes to them with a bigger score, it represents a one last job situation for Rocky, which spurs Alex to go forward with it, despite reservations. The mark is a blind war vet (Stephen Lang) sitting on a large cash settlement in an abandoned neighborhood. No sooner do they begin the job, it turns out that this man is way more formidable than they previously thought. Soon it’s a fight for survival, with each twist revealing something even more terrifying about this house. The film is at its best when keeping things simple, but there’s some deeply tense sequences, including at least one that might leave you a bit scarred.

dont-breathe-1As is normally the case with fright flick, you don’t go in expecting powerhouse acting, but there’s a trio of nice little performances here. Jane Levy is an effective horror heroine, rarely a damsel in distress but never an instantaneous superhero either. She was effective in Evil Dead and is even more so here. Dylan Minette also does a solid job in showing how fundamentally decent his character is, even if his actions don’t always speak to it. Best in show though is easily Stephen Lang, who capably displays the increased sensitivity of his other senses, with sight having been lost in the Gulf War. He’s about as creepy as it gets.

Daniel Zovatto is a bit broad, but far from terrible. It’s a small cast, with only really the aforementioned players being of note besides Emma Bercovici as Rocky’s daughter, but they work well together and help execute Alvarez’s vision for the film.

Speaking of Fede Alvarez, he is hardly a subtle writer/director, but Don’t Breathe showcases how well he can play with tension. Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues overshoot a bit in the final third with increased ambition, but for the most part, Alvarez’s direction is really effective and keeps your palms sweaty. The use of space is also fairly creative, as is strategic gore. There’s some level of character stupidity here, but that’s to be expected. I’m game to see Alvarez continue to think up new and exciting ways to scare us, as he definitely has a knack for it. The flaws, like the aforementioned first scene and move towards ridiculousness at the end, only prevent a good movie from being even better.

Overall, Don’t Breathe is a horror film best scene with an audience that likes to be toyed with. If you don’t like this sort of thing, it’ll do nothing for you, but if it’s your kind of genre, your pulse might race and you probably will jump once or twice. It’s more unsettling than terrifying, but as a showcase for an exciting up and coming horror filmmaker, it’s quality stuff. Simple is best here, with occasionally an almost Hitchcockian display of suspense being put forward. You shouldn’t go in expecting a modern masterpiece, but Don’t Breathe is indisputably an effective home invasion movie with more than its fair share of scares.

Don’t Breathe is currently in theaters!

Grade: (★★★)