While his once mooted sequel to the Evil Dead remake languishes in the shadow of Ash Vs Evil Dead (the recent TV series/sequel to Sam Raimi’s original trilogy), Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez has crafted Don’t Breathe: a slick, sick and stylish home invasion horror that’s punchy and modish but, like his feature debut, scuppers most of its attempts at spawning scares and suspense.
Three twenty-something friends, who regularly rob posh houses, find themselves in a pickle while raiding a blind war vet’s home for what is supposed to be their final hit. Despite accessing the property with relative ease, the team underestimate its resident’s brawn, lunacy and irate, slavering Rottweiler and find themselves attacked by the weaponised mad man along with his mad-eyed mutt. Alvarez’s latest provides a glossy, unique riff on the grimy home invasion/ evil neighbour films of the 70s and 80s. It’s often fun, thrilling and quite tightly plotted with neatly woven set-pieces, ominous settings, innovative twists and subtle subversions but nowhere near as scary and suspenseful as it should be.
The main young players are forgettable genre fodder: the type too frequently honed for mutilation. One thief, Alex (Dylan Minnette), has reservations about the job, combined with a guilty conscience. His colleague, Money (Daniel Zovatto), is burly, obnoxious and the most obvious to die while level headed heroine Rocky (Jane Levy) is far too shallow and avaricious to care about.
These three main renegade meat-heads are complimented by Stephen Lang’s blind vet “villain”; an aptly fractured, enraged antagonist/ antihero conjured via a cracking and jittery performance from Lang. But it’s initially difficult to relate to any of the characters and ultimately know who to root for. The blind man’s too sadistic and the meddling young’uns are utterly abhorrent. Even though Lang’s character is depicted as a victim, he is also, for the most part, the film’s central villain. While subverting characters/ archetypes should be encouraged, especially within a genre typically fraught with stereotypes, the lack of definition, in this instance, detracts from the viewers’ ability to empathise with the protagonists in order to feel their tension and fear.
Alvarez’s shrill style educes the burnished gloom of Evil Dead and shares its dilapidated house setting, but lacks the supernatural elements (twisted witches and tree rape). Some characters slightly evolve beyond their stereotypes and the last act unravels some pioneering components, with a “weapon” not previously utilised in this genre/ context before. Plot curls turn events nasty while a trilling, disjointed score (by Evil Dead’s Roque Banos), smooth editing and sound design alongside decent performances which compliment the imagery.
Alvarez and co-screenwriter Rodo Sayagues deliver distinctive sub-genre crimps while evoking the likes of Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs and, to a lesser extent, Panic Room. But Alvarez is no Craven or Fincher and his inability to craft likeable characters, harvest suspense or fashion a fright, means Don’t Breathe resonates like an over-polished/ manufactured homage to the films that inspired it. But it is still brisk, moody and action packed enough to make for a solid ninety minutes. Boasting more flair, zest and originality than many mainstream genre efforts.