The simpler the better is the philosophy behind Fede Alvarez’s relentless new horror, Don’t Breathe. The film belongs to the ‘home-invasion’ subgenre, a particularly nasty type of movie that because of its confined nature, usually exhibits raw violence that’ll make the most iron-hearted horror geek squeamish. And Don’t Breathe does embody all the genre tropes, but less raw and more Hitchcockian refined. The film does depict moments of brutal violence, one scene in particularly is very seedy, but the smoothness of the camera and the rich cinematography, separates it from such predecessors as The Last House On The Left (1972) and Straw Dogs (1970), which possessed a more dirty, grainy feel. Don’t Breathe in terms of style anyway, is more aching to be Panic Room (2002) or even Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991).
Set in Detroit, three accomplices are fixing to make a their big and final score before escaping to the sunshine state for some peace of mind. Their trade? A little B&E action. Similar to last year’s It Follows, also set in a derelict Detroit, there’s no parental advisory . . . that Eminem sure did ruin that town. Their final hit is a house on an abandoned street, owned by an old blind army vet. Night falls, they lurk, they enter, suspense ensues. Cinematographer, Pedro Luque’s camera glides through the house in a terrific one take, laying out a blueprint of the house for the audience, who will have to endure it for the entire film. Seeing that the antagonist (Stephen Lang) is blind (sorry), we are being led by pure cinema, where sound is the enemy. We’re a fly on the wall in this creepy house and there’s plenty of foreshadowing to be had – tool set, Magnum under the bed – but there’s also a twist halfway through the film that no one could predict that switches where the audience’s’ sympathies lie.
There is nothing particularly original about Don’t Breathe. Its plot and characters are quite flat, even though Jane Levy’s character Rocky is as resilient as any final girl in horror (Sally of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes to mind). Essentially, its strengths rely on its technical prowess. The house is the star of the movie, providing enough booby-traps, secret passages and sadistic resources for survival and affliction. Sound may be an enemy for our protagonists, but an ally for the antagonist and the filmmakers use sound to great effect in Don’t Breathe. The film plays with sound similar to how It Follows played with visual composition. The viewer had to concentrate hard on a projected shot in It Follows in order to spot the “follower”. It was like the Where’s Wally of horror cinema. While with Don’t Breathe, the viewer has to hold their breath and pluck up their ears in suspense.
The big twist is a shocking one, but it might actually hurt the film. Before it we are 50/50 about whose side we’re on, but afterwards our allegiance is set in stone. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues take away the whole “stand-off” appeal and make it just a bit too easy for audiences to choose sides. However, because of this twist the stakes are higher, the antagonist’s objective a little more disturbing. You won’t turn a blind eye to a turkey baster ever again.
Overall, Don’t Breathe is an exercise in suspense. Hitchcock on crack. It’s pure cinema that allows the camera to linger to cause tension. The action and violence is a tangible feast for the eyes. There’s a brilliant shot near the end where our horror heroine, Rocky, is face to face with a rabid rottweiler. She’s bloody, contorted, with dog spittle dripping from her brow. That shot is scarier than the entire running time of Cujo. Don’t Breathe is relentless. Forget white-knuckled, I’m typing this with my nose.