Starring: Jane Levy (Evil Dead), Dylan Minnette (Goosebumps), Daniel Zovatto (It Follows), Stephen Lang (Avatar)
Director: Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead)
Writers: Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues (Evil Dead)
Runtime: 1 hour 28 minutes
Release Date: 26 August (US), 9 September (UK)
One of the main reasons a lot of horror movies don’t scare me is because I know it’s not real, but that’s doubled whenever dealing with the supernatural. I’m not a superstitious person, so rarely after watching a movie involving ghosts or zombies or what-have-you do I find myself still in fear because I know that kind of thing would never happen to me. Even most slasher movies don’t get to me because they start over the top or degenerate into the fantastical like the Halloween franchise did. I still enjoy them from a cinematic perspective; I just don’t find them scary. What does get to me, however, is when horror movies deal with real-life terrors. For example, Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are scary because they, for the most part, feel like they could actually happen. Don’t Breathe falls into this camp by deriving scares from a realistic situation, never cheating in its objectives or falling back on the supernatural, to deliver easily the best horror movie of the year so far.
Don’t Breathe has an incredibly basic premise and wastes no time getting to the meat of the story. It results in a somewhat rushed beginning, but within it is packed all the basic motivation and information you need to get behind these characters. From there, the tension begins to build and pretty much never stops. Every other beat there’s a new obstacle to overcome, and every lull in suspense is quickly made up for with a jolt of fear. The plot has just enough twists to keep you guessing and increase the stakes, but the story remains tightly focused thanks to its enclosed setting and minimal cast. It mostly plays out like a mixture of Panic Room and Hard Candy, but the presence of Stephen Lang’s Blind Man gives it shades of Alien and Predator as our protagonists sneak their way around him. The film occasionally relies on jump scares but they never feel forced or undeserved, and ingenious sequences like the blacked-out basement and dog-and-car scenes more than make up for it. By the film’s third act all bets are off as to what could happen, and the film’s ending is satisfying but doesn’t forget to leave you with a lurking sense of dread. My only flaw with the story is that the film’s opening shot, whilst cleverly done and perfectly sets the mood, is an in media res moment before cutting back to a few days earlier; it results in you knowing that at least two characters will survive to that moment, taking away some of the surprise until the plot catches up.
The cast of Don’t Breathe is kept pretty small; with the exception of a few minor characters in the film’s bookends, it’s basically just three twenty-somethings and a badass blind pensioner in a house. Jane Levy, teamed once again with her Evil Dead director Fede Alvarez, delivers a strong performance as main character Rocky. She’s not exactly a saint considering the lengths she’s going to just for some money, but her motivations are completely justified and they just about manage to keep her in the sympathetic camp. Dylan Minnette as Alex is the more doe-eyed reluctant member of the group, mainly acting as the voice of reason who just wants to get out of this nightmare, but again his motives and personality justify the times he makes rash decisions. Daniel Zovatto is easily the weakest of the bunch as scumbag Money; you know he’s going to get what’s coming to him from scene one, but he at least serves the purpose of setting the stakes. But the real scene-stealer is Lang as the Blind Man, who barely says a word of dialogue until the third act but gets across so much through simple things like body language and rate of breathing. He’s more of a creature than a man at points, like a more realistic Michael Myers with far more efficient combat skills, but he has just enough humanity to make him both somewhat relatable and yet so incredibly terrifying.
Alvarez’s experience on Evil Dead definitely shows here, and now he seems far more comfortable with elements like tone and atmosphere. The cinematography uses a lot of long takes to both build tension and familiarize the audience with the terrain of the house and, whilst the camera does sometimes linger too long on an object just to set it up for later, the effect works brilliantly in the long run. The sound mixing is very strong as well, with plenty of sparse moments as our characters try to avoid being found out by Lang followed by the intensity of running feet and gunshots. The filmmakers have also done a great job of making Hungary look like a Detroit suburb; fairly easy for the most part considering the enclosed location for the majority of the film, but even when out in the open it’s entirely convincing compared to other productions.
Don’t Breathe will take your breath away, pun intended. It’s an intense ride from start to finish with well-executed scares, strong performances, and a plot far more intricate and entertaining that I expected. Whilst it didn’t exactly scare the pants off me, I found myself actually invested in the characters and wracked with tension during the really intense scenes, so those who do scare easily and crave that sensation will totally have a blast with it. It’s a vast improvement over Alvarez’s so-so Evil Dead, and I hope from here on out he takes on more original concepts like this with producer Sam Raimi at his side rather than competently rehashing the latter’s already perfect movies.
FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10
P.S. I’ve posted the trailer here as usual, but I honestly recommend you don’t watch it as it spoils a few key moments; I didn’t watch it before I saw the movie and I’m glad I didn’t. Watch at your own risk.