Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Fede Alvarez
Stars: Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto.
This tense, claustrophobic thriller cleverly inverts the premise behind such thrillers as Wait Until Dark and Blind Terror, in which a vulnerable blind woman was terrorised by killers until she fought back. Here though it is a blind person who is doing the terrorising. And it is a surprisingly effective thriller that grips until the very end. It will also invite comparisons with the recent tense and claustrophobic thriller Green Room.
Detroit is an economically depressed city, and there are lots of empty houses in once flourishing suburbs that now resemble ghettos. Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto, from It Follows, etc) and Alex (Dylan Minnette, from the recent Goosebumps, etc) break into the houses of wealthy owners and, like a version of The Bling Ring, help themselves to goods and electronics. Alex uses inside information as his father works for a security company and he is able to learn the codes of the alarm systems. Rocky wants to leave her trailer park home in Detroit and her abusive mother and head off to California to start a better life. Money though is the more crude of the three and urinates on the furniture and breaks valuable objects.
The three decide to break into a house which is the home to a reclusive blind man who is rumoured to have a fortune stashed away inside his house. He also lives alone since his daughter was killed in a car accident. Alex is initially reluctant because he thinks this is morally wrong, but eventually tags along because he has an unrequited crush on Rocky.
But the three get more than they bargained for with their last big heist. The blind man (played by Avatar‘s villain Stephen Lang) is a former vet who served in Iraq, and he has a particular skill set that enables him to deal with the intruders. He has heightened sensory perception to compensate for his lack of sight. He is as proficient and as deadly as Rutger Hauer in Blind Fury. He also has a secret in the house that he is anxious to protect. What begins as a simple intrusion soon turns into a battle for survival, as the blind man relentlessly stalks them through his heavily fortified house. And there is also a vicious dog that they have to deal with.
Director Fede Alvarez was born in Uruguay, but raised on a diet of horror and suspense films, and he has a great understanding of the tropes of the exploitation genre. After a few short horror films in his native country he tackled mainstream Hollywood fare with a remake of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead that was both proficient, unrelenting and quite violent. Here Alvarez efficiently ramps up the suspense and makes good use of the confined and stifling setting and he seems to have learned a few tricks from that master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. But after a slow beginning he certainly establishes a relentless rhythm to the drama that rarely lets up.
There are plenty of unexpected twists and bizarre turns, and even a nifty piece of misdirection in this cat and mouse pursuit through a house of horrors. Alvarez makes good use of a small budget to create one of the better suspense thrillers of the year, one that will nail audiences to their seats for the duration of the brisk 88 minutes running time.
Naaman Marshall’s set design for the interior of the house is impressive, and it is almost another character. Cinematographer Pedro Luque creates a palpable sense of dread through his inventive use of lighting. Jonathan Miller also uses inventive sound design to heighten the suspense and growing sense of dread. There is also a nasty edge to the violence here that is unusual for mainstream Hollywood fare. Some people may take exception to the violent treatment of women in this film. But it is the smaller moments that are the most effective in unsettling the audience.
Alvarez puts his main cast through a physical wringer here. Lang has an imposing and formidable presence and he stands out as the villain. But his angry blind vet intent on killing the intruders is also more than a one-dimensional villain. Levy, who starred in Alvarez’s remake of Evil Dead, makes for a feisty and resourceful heroine in the mold of Jodie Foster’s character in Panic Room.
Don’t Breathe is a breath of fresh air in the crowded and often cliched horror movie genre, and this efficient and lean variation on the home invasion thriller exerts a tight grip on the audience.