Don’t Breathe review: See no evil? They wish
A blind homeowner vs home invaders in a superbly made thriller that turns the genre on its head
Forgive them their trespasses: Daniel Zovatto, Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette in Don’t Breathe
Film Title: Don't Breathe
Director: Fede Alvarez
Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang, Emma Bercovici, Franciska Torocsik, Christian Zagia, Katia Bokor
Running Time: 88 min
If you were feeling disputatious, you could reasonably argue that Don’t Breathe – a modestly budgeted box-office smash in the US – is not really a horror film. There is no supernatural element to the project. It is a home-invasion thriller and, if we’re allowing those in, then surely Home Alone registers as horror.
Never mind. By admitting Don’t Breathe into the canon and by applying the Law of Three, we can now conclusively confirm that Detroit has become the new Transylvania. Following Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, Don’t Breathe is the third high-profile horror to make delicious use of that city’s suburban wastelands.
It’s to do with atmosphere. Large parts of the city really do seem to be in a state of undeath. But the dereliction also allows chaos to unfold in one inhabited house without inconvenient complaints from the neighbours.
Fede Alvarez, the Uruguayan director who almost made a workable remake of The Evil Dead in 2014, is not straining the envelope in the manner of recent innovative horrors such as The Witch or The Babadook. The film-makers work with familiar colours to construct deliciously horrid variations on established patterns. Don’t Breathe deserves its success.
On paper, the story looks to be subverting expectations. This is a film in which the blind homeowner who has lost his daughter in a car crash is the villain and the invaders, young thieves in search of escape, are the plucky heroes. Those worried about ableism may object to the use of blindness as a plot device, but the burglary community will be delighted with how they are portrayed.
The charming Jane Levy plays Rocky, a tearaway who longs to prise her little sister from useless parents. Alex (Dylan Minnette), the youngest member of the crew, has been persuaded to rob keys from his dad, who runs a security business, that allow entry to properties and permit the disabling of alarms.
They learn that a blind army veteran (Stephen Lang) has secreted large wads of cash somewhere about a classic horror-film house. The old geezer proves more of a threat than the trio could ever have suspected.
There are reminders of Wait Until Dark (1967) here. As in that Audrey Hepburn vehicle, the film-makers enjoy casting darkness about the house and allowing the blind person a sudden triumphant advantage. The invaders also get to hide in the plainest imaginable sight when the lights are on.
This is, however, a more brutal affair, boosted by half a dozen brilliantly audacious set-pieces. Alvarez has studied his John Carpenter and has a talent for building shocks – some leading from benign sources – towards a satisfactorily horrific conflagration.
Still, subtlety is not quite all. Don’t Breathe exploits the innovations of torture porn with more discipline than we have come to expect from that horrid genre. The squeamish should be aware that one bizarre episode works hard at redefining the word “transgressive”. Are they allowed to do that on screen?
Pedro Luque’s camera glides menacingly through oily sets that conceal endless well-placed surprises. Veteran hard-ass Stephen Lang has a concentrated purpose that makes something seriously unsettling of the ruthless home defender. Levy has the sauce to earn her status as badass Final Girl.
Catch Don’t Breathe before “The Blind Man” becomes diluted in sequels and fans start wearing Stephen Lang masks on Halloween. That’s what’s going to happen.