Don’t Breathe has a truly killer opening – a man dragging a seemingly dead young woman down a road, by her hair, in broad daylight, through a subdivision of houses. Countless witnesses should have dialed 911 long ago. But, oddly, all is too quiet. Yes! Read that again, and don’t be shy! Let your sick imagination run wild with thoughts of torture, sexual depravity and the worst images you have, repressed within your otherwise normal self. What makes you want to see a horror movie more than an opening scene like that? Who is he? Who is she? Is she dead? How did he kill her? And, why the hell is he dragging her down the street by the hair, in broad daylight, for God’s sake? What will the neighbors think? Where are the neighbors? Will she survive (if she’s even still alive), and what will be left of her? to quote The Texas Chainsaw Massacre posters from the 70s. What questions we horror freaks ask, if only in our minds. Luckily, we have movies like Don’t Breathe to answer the questions for us! Yes! Hold your breath no longer. Here’s a movie that does it for you and does it well!
Don’t Breathe (directed by Fede Alvarez) is a tightly-wound horror yarn raveling the story of three young people who, for lack of money or excesses of boredom, make a career of breaking into houses and stealing whatever they can. What’s worse is that they do it with or without the owners at home. Serial successes and booty bags of money, jewels, electronics and more make them increasingly bold about the levels of danger and degrees of crime they risk. Why not? Society, mom and dad, and the system in general aren’t just giving them enough of what they want. (Just what they need is never enough!) The hero’s mom/piece-of-shit-woman who gives not a shit about her kids helps viewers briefly understand motives, if not feel a bit sympathy for them. But, for the most part, these are (to use current political adjectives) just the sort of people (young or old, democrat or republican) in the now imfamous “basket of deplorables.” Who can possibly feel sympathy for humans (as they are here only technically) who break into the homes of others, ready to render them unconscious, stealing and destroying all they own, and even ejaculating on everything in sight! Yes! For Pete’s sake, why do they have to spew their spunk on everything on top of all else? Even animals don’t do that! Could people ever be more deplorable and disgusting as this? Could people ever be, because of it, more deserving of life imprisonment or death in the process of committing such crimes? Civilized thinking says, “Hell no!” and that is exactly the first thoughts we have of Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto)! Yes! Money he is, and the root of all evil is definitely here with him and the others in his trio! From the beginning, they have made a horrible first impression, and who could care what horrible fate awaits them? Who could care if they burn in Hell forever, from the first minutes of the film?
As any good horror movie must do, Don’t Breathe does it by including “the blind man” (Stephen Lang) – an Iraq War veteran, and benefactor of several hundred thousand dollars he has won in a lawsuit involving the alleged accidental death of his daughter. Somehow, the teen trio suspects that he is keeping the money in his house, rather than in the bank, and thus the plot (and the horror) begins. The blind man’s lethal sidekick is a Rottweiler hound from Hell that plays a mean game of fetch (and I’m not just talking sticks and ball here). As clichéd as it is, there are few things more frightening than a big, mean-ass dog, growling, biting and slobbering it’s way at you, inches from your face! Yes! I guess that’s why mean-ass dogs are such a cliché.
Does the teen trio get inside the blind man’s house? Of course! (I’m sure I’m not spoiling anthing for you here!) If they didn’t we wouldn’t have a horror film, would we? Once inside, as we expect, things are, let’s just say, not as easy as “stealing from the blind.” Instead, they find the blind man who, despite his lack of sight, puts even experienced home invaders to the test….and unwilling witnesses to even more. Here, Don’t Breathe is a title, as well as an imperative rule to remember! Just when the trio think they have this one in the bag, we know better! We are experienced watchers of such plots, and we’ve seen it before. However, with all it’s twists and turns, it’s all the more surprising…and different!
Have we seen it before exactly like it is in Don’t Breathe? I say no. At this point in the history of movies, almost everything that can be done has been done already. To give any new movie the hope of being different and worthy of merit, the test is in how it is done differently. Don’t Breathe gives us a blind man who, with his Iraq war experience, has more sensory skills and power than the average sighted villain (if you can call him a villain). “How dare you call any military veteran defending his home a villain?” you ask. Without giving too much away, within his house is a reason to give the strongest patriots a motive. But, even ejaculating teenagers may not be the biggest reason to hold your breath. At the risk of getting kinky, the story involves semen, a turkey baster, and handcuffs! Are you looking for this movie on Amazon already? (Wink, wink.)
Along with the perversion, Don’t Breathe builds ever stronger tension and dread, after things are tuned upside down for the teens (and the viewers). Just when we think they have the upper hand (or the bigger baster), they don’t; and, just when you think they are dead, maybe they aren’t. Yes! As always, it’s annoying when people, mortal humans, who should have been as good as dead, mysteriously return to life for one last coup de gras. It’s a cliché that horror movies can’t escape, no matter how long we hold our breath. Will horror movie victims (and, in this case villains too) ever learn to make sure their quarry is truly dead before they walk away? Will they ever realize that whatever you leave behind in one piece will come back to kill you later? I guess not! While this a great opportunity for something new, I won’t be holding my breath!
However, do characters in Don’t Breathe do one of the most clichéd things that too many otherwise intelligent people do in horror films? Do the characters go into places that are obviously too dangerous, knowing better? Do they walk from one dark, room of the house to the next, for no good reason, other than to be fast, bloodied fodder for the film? Actually, no. Before the teens enter the blind man’s house, they have no reason to think it should be so dangerous. Actually, they have every good reason to believe it will be one of the easiest jobs ever. (With a blind man inside, what else is there to think?) Once inside, and once the danger is obvious, they stay in the house only because there is no damn way to get out! Characters do go to increasingly dangerous places in the house (the basement, air shafts, cellar doors, etc.), but only with the motive to get the hell out. I feel sure that these three (unlike other dumb horror movie characters) would never go back in, if ever they could get out! They defy the stereotypical, stupid horror-film victims too well, from the start! You can thank your bloody garden shears for that one!
Darkness, as an expected cliché, provides the best setting for fear, and here it is used in force. It is also used to level the playing field between the hunter and the hunted, catching all involved off guard. What’s more clichéd, but effectively tense, are the repeated times that characters worm through passageways and air ducts, and sneak from door to door in the dark. Yes! In the dark, you’ll jump again and again, just like you’ve done in every other movie. But, oh what fun it will be every time, again and again! As they say, “In the land of the dark, the blind man is king.” In Don’t Breathe, there’s a lot of darkness–familiar, but always frightening! From a production standpoint, darkness is cheap, simple and always scary!
As for performances, they are top notch! The major success of the film is with everyone being so believable in their roles. Jane Levy is awesome as Rocky, the girl hardened by her years of parental neglect, abuse, and all other things that cause kids to go the wrong way. (Her mother jokingly suggests that her lips are sore, because she uses them to make money on the street.) Rocky is determined to do whatever it takes to escape her troubles and make a new life for herself somewhere else. No risk is too great to take; but, she is as vulnerable as she is tough, when she’s afraid and fighting for her life. Rocky almost becomes likeable during her vulnerability, until we remember who she is and what she’s doing to cause her troubles. Without Levy making Rocky so real–so tough and afraid–Don’t Breathe would likely suffocate, or at least die a slow 90-minute death. Instead, Levy is just the breath of fresh air we need! Dylan Minnette as Alex and Daniel Zovatto as Money do the necessary job of making one-dimensional characters as interesting as possible. Stephen Lang is as good a blind man as blind men can be, giving him just the sinister combination of mystery, danger and depravity needed. At first seemingly helpless, the blind man, thanks to Lang, transforms into one who renders others helpless! Without ever saying much, his presence and expressions alone make us fear him.
Don’t Breathe is a horror film that somewhat (and I do stress somewhat) blurs the lines between villain/monster and hero, making no attempt to throw any do-gooders in the mix. All characters, including the dog (certainly a character here), are bad to the bone (or the baster), despite the no-excuse reasons we’re given. It is difficult to root for anyone here, anytime they are close to killing another, or anytime they are close to escaping death. Even the arguably most-innocent victim (a prebasted surrogate) gives us only minimal reason for sympathies. However, most viewers, acting as judge and jury, will see where the scales shift, without really caring much about the fate of anyone. Ultimately, everyone gets what they deserve, more or less (mostly less), and viewers are left no more satisfied, one way or another. When you really hope the villain kills the cute young woman (or at least impregnates her with a turkey baster), you know this is one seriously f&%$#d up movie! But, as far as horror movies go, that could be a good thing!
Believe it or not, Don’t Breathe could have used more sugar for the horrorhound’s sweet tooth. The opening scene of the girl being dragged down the street by her hair sets viewers up for more than they receive. (Like a premature ejaculation, the best part seems over from the start.) More blood, graphic violence, and courage to show the gore would have hit the spot a lot better. Let’s face it. Movies like this are most effective when they deliver the meat raw, deeply cut, and profusely bleeding. They exist for one reason, and one reason only — to make us wince, squirm, and feel glad we’re just a viewer. This is not a case where less does more. This is a case where more is needed to do more! Yes! We need to see and hear those shears impale Money with his eyes bulging as they penetrate his organs (he deserves it, for sure). We need to see Rocky get bitten in the ass by the rabid Rottweiler and, quite honestly, she needs a few more punches in the face. Even with those extras, no one in Don’t Breathe would get enough of what they truly deserve…and viewers would still be left anemic, wanting more. Turkey basters aside, this is one bird that came out undercooked, but still tasty. A side of dumplings with some gravy would be nice!
Don’t Breathe stops just short of impregnating the main character, and the audience, with horror that makes a classic…or a movie to be watched again. It’s as fun as fornication the first time, but subsequent viewings cause the seven-year itch, with nightmares of turkey-baster insemination! Kinky? Yeah, almost! Is it a case of ED or premature ejaculation? I’ll let you be the judge. Virgin viewings of Don’t Breathe are better left unprotected. Yes! Leave your condoms at home! Turkey basters or not, it’s one hell of an orgasm!