Home invasion movies have been around since the days when Kurt Russell and Ray Liotta headlined A-list fare (Unlawful Entry). David Fincher has even played around in the sub-genre with the visual trickery of Panic Room, and most recently we had You’re Next, which presented itself as homage but descended into Scooby Doo cliché.
Arguably the biggest sleeper hit of 2016, with $150m worldwide from a budget of just under $10M, Fede The Evil Dead Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe is also the most effective domestic terror film since the original Straw Dogs. Why, you might ask? Step inside and we’ll show you……
The Kids are Alright
Time and time again, films fail to make you care for the fate of the characters. A recent point in case was Blair Witch. Released during the same theatrical window as Don’t Breathe, it failed on a commercial and critical level for the simple reason that scares just aren’t effective if those being exposed to them are one-dimensional cyphers.
The strength of Don’t Breathe is that it presents rounded characters, before putting them, and us through the emotional wringer. We get a disparate trio of individuals; Alex (Dylan Minnette) is insular, with a moral code, which tells us that while he may be a petty criminal, he has a conscience. His unrequited love for fellow crook, Rocky (Jane Levy), also makes him immediately empathic, a guy you want to root for. Equally impressive is the way that the script quickly establishes her as a strong independent presence. She’s from a broken family, there’s just the slightest hint of abuse, and everything she does appears to be a means to an end; to get her little sister out of this poverty line existence. Once again, we’re on her side.
But it wouldn’t be fun if we didn’t have someone to secretly hope might fall foul to the goings on behind the front door of 1837 Buena Vista. So we get Money (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky’s boyfriend and all-round skeeze bag.
Within twenty minutes, a film that thrives on its efficiency has managed to do what most scripts can’t achieve in their entire duration, and we’re invested. Now it’s time to introduce……
The Blind Man
Fede Alvarez’s script is such a nail-biting success because it skews audience preconceptions, especially those carried by the cineliterate amongst them, who think that they’ve seen it all before. Benefitting from this box-of-tricks approach is the films trump card, which is to be found in the hulking great form of Stephen Lang’s bogeyman.
Introduced as very much the victim of the piece, his blind ex-veteran who suffered a heart-breaking family tragedy, earns our sympathy straight away. But as things begin to evolve, every plot twist alters your opinion on both him and the home invaders, and frankly, he’s terrifying. Ghosting around the house like the Terminator in a vest, offering up primitive guttural noises as a form of expression, he’s afforded more than your average stalk and slash immovable shape normally is. Not only are your primal instincts, such as fear, being tested as a viewer, but his character depth, and eventual backstory revelations, play with your own moral compass.
De-mystifying a monster doesn’t always work, look at Rob Zombie’s lamentable Halloween films, but when it’s used as a narrative tool as creatively as it is with Don’t Breathe, its impressive stuff.
Watching Through Your Fingers
It’s a strange form of praise to highlight the fact that each time this writer has watched Don’t Breathe, it was notable for the viewing companion’s constant need to hide behind their fingers, primarily through fear, but also the almost unbearable anticipation built by some of the set-pieces. The creaking of a floorboard, the crunching of glass, the vibration of a mobile phone, or the blatant disregard for the one piece of advice the title offers to our unfortunate crooks; breathing! The sound design is outstanding, and overall, simplicity is key.
There’s a real old fashioned, refreshing sensibility to the scares on offer here. Yes, there are your standard cat-in-the-cupboard jumps, but everything else has been put together with audience immersion as priority, like a contemporary William Castle flick, just without the gimmicks.
Littered with numerous memorable sequences – Alex on the slow crack glass, the moment the blind man sits bolt upright in bed, the in-car canine fight – what’ll stick with you the most, both for the cathartic pay-off, and the unanimous chorus of “Euuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuughhhhhh” it will elicit from the audience, is a scene involving a pipette, a close-up, and a triumphant act of retribution. It’s worth the download price alone.
88mins of taut, sweaty palmed, haunted house thrills, that puts the viewer in the protagonists’ place, without letting them exhale until the credits roll.
From Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Don’t Breathe is available to rent and buy now.