Ah, horror movies, the great American pastime. What’s more patriotic than escaping the election season and summer heat to hide in a movie theater and submit to relentless scares instead?
Maybe a lot of things, but for many of us, horror films are one of the purest forms of escapism available. They’re like cinematic roller coasters: you may regret your decision while you’re on the ride, but after the fact you’ll have great stories and the pride of surviving the ordeal — and you can drag your friends along for a second time to see their petrified faces.
Don’t Breathe is a horror roller coaster that’s fairly streamlined and not too frightening at first, but during the last third it flies off the tracks and stops the breath of everyone strapped in. It goes from 0 (mildly scary) to 60 (horrifyingly disgusting) quickly and with a deft directorial touch.
Horror movies without a supernatural element often struggle to find a convincing source of scares, but Don’t Breathe’s concept is consistently clever throughout its execution. Fede Alvarez, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Rodo Sayagues (the duo previously collaborated on 2013’s excessively gory Evil Dead remake), crafts an original story that never strays from what makes it work.
The film focuses on three teenagers who have decided to rob an old blind man in the pursuit of better lives for themselves. Things go wrong, the blind man proves himself to be an adept killer despite his disability, and they get trapped in the house with the vengeful man. So what makes this story work?
First off, it’s one of the rare horror movies that make an effort to humanize every character. Each person involved in the plot is guilty of some pretty awful things, but they all have narrative justifications that add a lot of heft to their actions. For example, main girl Rocky — who Jane Levy portrays with wicked drive — hails from a broken family and is trying desperately to relocate to California with her young sister. As the film’s nausea level ramps up, some characters become (far) less sympathetic than others, but Don’t Breathe originally sets a stage in which there are reasons to root for every player.
Secondly, the bold concept is rife with opportunities to frighten an eager audience. Thanks to terse direction, cinematography, and editing, Don’t Breathe achieves a claustrophobic tone that really will have you waiting with bated breath. Horror buffs will be disappointed by the first two thirds though: they’re only slightly scary. It nervously treads a line between thriller and horror that’s neither legitimately tense nor frightening.
The third act is a different story. Without giving anything away, Don’t Breathe has a memorable (for all the most sickening reasons) twist that completely defines the film. The last third finally finds a distinct personality: the horror of absolute revulsion. There aren’t a lot of movies that can sicken me anymore, but the crucial scene of the movie had me holding back my gag reflex. It’s bravely messed up, for lack of a stronger word. That insane grossness holds up effectively until the final second.
Don’t Breathe isn’t high art horror, but it will obliterate faint hearts and put fans of the genre to the test.
★★★★ (4 out of 5)