Horror has experienced a seriously welcome renaissance over the last few years. Gone are the embarrassing days of constant, tension-free torture porn outings that characterized the 2000s, as raw, smart horror films like The Witch, The Babadook, and It Follows have reminded us why we love the genre, and it just keeps on getting better. Just when we thought Lights Out would become the definitive fright fest to win the summer of 2016, Fede Alvarez' Don't Breathe taps into our deepest, darkest fears, and offers us a bloody, instant horror classic that's not for the faint of heart. Seriously folks, I loved this movie.
But first let's set up the simple premise: Don't Breathe follows a trio of young breaking-and-entering artists as they endeavor to make enough money to escape a burned out Detroit -- a new favorite location for modern horror films. When fencing stolen items starts to see diminishing returns, they learn about a blind Gulf War veteran living in a secluded nearby neighborhood who supposedly has enough cash sitting in a safe for them to leave their awful lives behind and move to California. After some ethical bickering, they decide to go for it. All goes well with the break-in -- until The Blind Man wakes up and unleashes an entire evening of unprecedented terror on our young heroes.
From that simple premise, Don't Breathe gets the fear going early and pretty much never lets up. The film is a taut, visceral thriller that offers unrelenting tension and a wide array of scares. Almost every scene finds new and creative ways to make these characters fight for their lives, whether it be in the crawling in the dark, running for their lives, or simply placed into increasingly tighter and tighter spaces. There's practically a scene to capitalize on every type of phobia imaginable, and Don't Breathe is perfectly paced in its ability to deliver fantastic scares.
I will talk quite a bit about the Evil Dead films in this review, but only because Don't Breathe continues to make it clear exactly why director Fede Alvarez was chosen to helm the 2013 remake of Evil Dead in the first place. From Don't Breathe's opening moments, one can see that the guy is an obvious student of Sam Raimi's visual style. Even without a supernatural element, the DNA of Evil Dead makes itself apparent very quickly in this new film's tone, style, and overall aesthetic.
Most notably, Fede Alvarez' fluid camerawork feels extremely reminiscent of the first two Evil Dead films -- particularly its use of long tracking shots to establish the geography of its single location. Painstaking effort went into the look of this movie, and it shows. There's just no denying that, even in a terrible looking location, Don't Breathe is a beautiful looking movie.
Beyond that, Fede Alvarez honors Sam Raimi's brand of horror in his ability to squeeze every single imaginable scare out of its setting -- crafting frights than can come from above, below, and all around at any given moment. Plenty of effective jump scares are used in Don't Breathe, but it's really the environment and consistent atmospheric tension that sells the fear of this film. The house itself often feels like an actual character (much like the cabin from The Evil Dead) by continuously offering new twists, turns, and gut-wrenching surprises that I won't spoil here, but are most definitely worth checking out.
Speaking of characters, across the board the performances in Don't Breathe are uniformly strong -- even if some members of the ensemble come across as inherently unlikeable at first. In particular, Jane Levy continues her hot streak from Alvarez' Evil Dead remake as Rocky, and once again proves that she may in fact be the definitive, badass scream queen for the 21st century. Much like recovering drug addict Mia from Levy's last collaboration with Fede Alvarez, Rocky's a scrappy fighter whose rough upbringing makes her a believable and sympathetic protagonist in a downright terrible situation. She's smart, she's tough, and her inability to escape from this night of horror never stems from any sort of cliché horror movie incompetence that tends to characterize the slasher genre.
That being said, it's Stephen Lang who deserves the majority of the acting credit for his sadistic yet almost sympathetic portrayal of The Blind Man. A behemoth of a human being, the psycho goes from unassuming, to merciless, to almost pitiable at times -- until you see what he's truly capable of. Lang plays this monster as a former member of the human race who has spent far too much time alone staring (literally) into his own darkness. This isn't Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger; The Blind Man could exist, and that's what makes him so terrifying
However, it's a testament to how good Don't Breathe is that its finale simply can't live up to its first and second acts. The movie starts good, becomes great within a few minutes, and maintains that high quality for much of its 88-minute run time, but it stops just short of perfection. As day breaks outside of the house, the film begins to lose some of its luster, and its overwhelmingly grim atmosphere starts to fade. Don't Breathe still offers some solid scares in its final act, but nothing that compares to what we as an audience go through during the middle portion of the film. Oddly enough, this has become a pattern for Fede Alvarez, as his Evil Dead suffered from the same issue.
Regardless of that fact, it's impossible to deny that Don't Breathe is a near-perfect execution of stylish and tense horror filmmaking. It's a visceral thriller offering audiences a compelling set of lead performances, nightmarish atmosphere, and an instant icon the form of The Blind Man. Don't Breathe isn't for the faint of heart, but it's a must see for any self-respecting fan of the horror genre.
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