Director: Fede Alvarez
Cast: Jane Levy, Stephen Lang, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto
Plot: Three burglars break into a blind army veteran’s (Lang) home to try and get their hands on a big score. But he is prepared to fight back.
Don’t Breathe’s a very interesting idea right from the off. It turns the home invasion movie on its head (a genre turned on its head so often, it’s probably getting motion sickness), by placing us in the heads of the people breaking in for a change. As the occupant fights back against his attackers, we feel the fears of the robbers, which are built up spectacularly by Alvarez in his gripping horror spectacle. At the same time, home invasion movies are prone to great ideas, but messy execution (the first Purge being a prime example). It is with relief that Alvarez overcomes every obstacle in his path. He starts off being smart early on, developing his burglars, so we care for them a surprising amount, especially as their motives are far from heroic. Using Dylan Minnette’s dad’s security firm and its access to keys across the neighbourhood, the three robbers attack house after house, sticking to some golden rules. Steal goods, not money. Don’t steal enough to become a major police target. And never bring a gun. It gives the occupants the legal right to shoot back. Their reasoning is mainly down to Jane Levy’s plight. Trapped with a lousy mother, Levy wants to raise enough funds to become legal guardian of her little sister and flee Michigan. Minnette harbours a crush on Levy, wanting to help her out, as long as they follow his rules. Zovatto… well, one asshole out of three makes for an interesting group dynamic. We’ll allow it. It does mean that for a short while, as the breaking in sequence begins, we are not sure who we are meant to be rooting for. Lang’s veteran comes across as an unstoppable horror movie villain, blind, yet calculating. With keen hearing and a vast memory of every twist and turn of his property, he is more than a match for the three robbers, who quickly find out that robbing a blind man is nowhere as easy as they presumed. While Lang makes short work of the three of them, we wonder if this is what Alvarez wants us to be rooting for. He is the victim of the film, in many regards, taking justice on the people breaking in and heading for his safe. Pro-gun and self defence supporters over in America will be cheering Lang’s character, for sure. And while the robbers are sympathised more than enough, it is always clear that they are in it for the money. A lot of their problems would be solved by ringing the police, but their murky morality stops them from cashing out. Sadly, a middle act twist blows his ‘who is the hero’ angle out of the water. It makes for good horror movie material, but does, without a doubt, place one of the groups in firm bad guy territory.
Still, it cannot be denied that Don’t Breathe is one of the more pulse-pounding horrors we have had in a good while. With the emphasis on good, old-fashioned fun, it is reminiscent of the teen horrors of the 90s, a group of young, pretty kids in a dark, dingy scenario. Only this time, the acting is just as important to the story as the scares. Jane Levy is fantastic, as the girl clinging to survival every step of the way. Without her, you wouldn’t be half as invested in the nightmare that follows. She is probably the star of the show, although it is easy to see that Lang will take the lion’s share of the glory, with a terrific portrayal of a haunted blind war veteran. It is the little details that shock like Lang’s croaky delivery, the speech of a man who hasn’t used his voice in years, or the terrific fight sequences, where Lang’s character has memorised the correct angle and location to direct his grapples, so there is always something heavy or sharp for an enemy’s head to hit on the way down to the floor. Acting aside, the direction is also brilliant. Movies that are fixed in a single house location are in constant danger of getting old, but Alvarez goes from strength to strength, as if he could add another 20 minutes to the movie and still keep us enthralled. It starts chilling and atmospheric, a drifting camera working its way through the house. It goes from character to character, drifting over small, but key details that the audience will want to remember for later on. And when the tension gets to the high point, Alvarez plays us like puppets. Whether we are holding our breath, as the characters hide in the dark (one scene where the lights are cut in a labyrinth basement is outstanding), or going for all-out action, we are riveted to the screen. I haven’t shouted ‘RUN’ this many times at a television set in quite some time.
Final Verdict: Alvarez gives us the best horror of 2016, a pulse-pounding thriller that puts the rest of the home invasion genre to shame.