Don’t Breathe

dont-breathe-smHorror is the genre which is always looked down upon by the establishment, derided as being base, lowbrow, sensationalist and consciously unpleasant, yet as with the disguised social commentary which often informs science fiction in the right hands so horror can be a tool for satire. Consider Craven’s response to the savagery of the Vietnam war in Last House on the Left, the shuffling consumer hordes in Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead or more recently the skewering of contemporary American values in the Purge trilogy.

It is particularly apt that the work of Wes Craven is held in mind: in 1991 he released The People Under the Stairs, and superficially it is that film which Don’t Breathe, the second feature of director Fede Alvarez, co-written from a script by Rodo Sayagues with whom he collaborated on the remake of Evil Dead, resembles. In both a home invasion is reversed, the audience following the intruders as they seek the valuables rumoured to be within a property which they find occupied by a more formidable resident than they had been led to believe.

dont-breathe-1Here the trio are Roxanne (Evil Dead‘s Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (It Follow‘s Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Goosebumps‘ Dylan Minnette) and their target is Norman Nordstrom (Avatar‘s Stephen Lang), a Gulf War veteran who lost his eyesight to shrapnel and is now known as “The Blind Man,” last resident of the derelict and overgrown Detroit neighbourhood where he lived with his daughter, killed years before in an automobile accident, the substantial settlement he received supposedly held in cash in the house.

From the outset, Rocky, Alex and Money are nothing more than thieves and idiots, particularly Money who gleefully leaves his DNA at previous crime scenes. Their ultimate goal is to get out of Detroit; understandable given the conditions they are living in and the lack of future for any of them, though only Rocky’s home life is shown to illustrate this, caring for her baby sister because their own drunken wreck of a mother has no interest.

dont-breathe-2Despite his reluctance to become involved, his father working for the firm who installed the security systems for the houses they target, Alex has access to the disable codes and so is vital to the plan, but within they find themselves trapped with a dangerous, violent man who is accustomed to the dark of his fortified home, a man who has no qualms about how he disposes of those who have broken into his domain.

Where Lost River examined the deprivation and abandonment of urban Detroit through a fantastical lens, Don’t Breathe is stark and brutal, populated by characters whose desperation may make their actions understandable but fails to make any of them likeable, nor is any lingering sympathy sustained by their inept behaviour which is practically begging to be caught, breaking windows and loudly berating each other when stealth should be second nature to them.

dont-breathe-4The swooping camera following them through the semi-darkness of the gloomy house, the scares come from the proximity of the hunter to his quarry, unable to get out of his path or defend themselves without alerting him to their presence, but nor do they take obvious opportunities such as barricading doors or actually unlocking the front door to have a clear exit route, preferring to waste time arguing instead of taking action.

Lang is barely called upon to be more than a menacing physical presence who seems to vanish and reappear at will, though had anyone thought to act as a lookout that particular repeated jump scare might have been obviated. Tense but unproductive, Don’t Breathe devolves to a parade of pointless unpleasantness, a weaponised game of hide and seek as though the child’s game was trying to act all grown up but without any substance to make it meaningful. Told in real time with multiple false endings, it actually manages to make the whole horrific ordeal boring, and for certain Alvarez’s brand of nastiness is no match for the legacy of Craven.

Don’t Breathe is now on general release




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