Don’t Breathe (2016)
I can’t remember the last time I went into a picture colder than a witches tit, just to thread through this years tenuous supernatural shenanigans, at least when it comes to horror movies. What I’m referring to is the deliberate and active avoidance of all marketing materials surrounding Don’t Breathe, as a little thought experiment I didn’t read a single social media tweet review, nor consumed the films trailer, in a vain attempt to go into this experience as virginal as possible. No matter how hard you try though the general chatter usually penetrates any measly spoiler defenses you can erect, and in fact it was the quiet praise for the film that convinced me to give the film a shot. Whilst I thought the 2013 Evil Dead remake was perfectly adequate I wasn’t necessarily clamoring to see director Fede Alvarez’s claustrophobic follow-up, until the murmuring consensus seemed to indicate that this was a darkly efficient and compact thriller, with a few perilous twists and turns which always appeals to my particular cinematic peccadilloes. Of course, this exercise puts a critic in something of an existential quandary, as I have to recommend this blackout approach if you wish to wallow in some genuine, unadulterated scares and surprises, so I should be demanding that you close this browser window and go see the movie, then come back latter, battered and bruised, to see what I have to say. There is a fine tradition of single set movies which utilize the most of their clamoring environments, Hitchcock’s Rope and Lifeboat immediately spring to mind, and there was the choking Buried from a few years ago, the Uruguayan La Casa Muda. and, well, a whole host of them here. Away from the single environment the genre backdrops to these projects emerge from the pulpy swamps of horror and suspense comics of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the likes of Eerie or Tales From The Crypt, simple, short, tensile tales with some sort of horrific premise, pulsing with some black moral manifesto. What we have in Don’t Breathe is an effective mixture of the two, a primarily single set remote house, which is infiltrated by a trio of hapless and morally questionable intruders, occupied by an easy ‘mark’ who may turn out to be more deadly than his sensory disabilities would suggest……
Our protagonists are hardly the heroes we usually see cluttered the multiplex screens. Alex (Jane Levy), Rocky (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are thieves pure and simple, cunningly using Rocky’s fathers security company insight to identify lucrative domiciles in a decaying Detroit, where entire cul-de-sacs and communities have been desolated by decades of economic decline. A pre-conflict context opening shows that their activities while inexcusable may be justified to their distorted eyes, Alex and her younger development disabled sister are suffering in a domestically abusive household, and she seeks the funding from the rich to flee to pastures new, while Alex sympathizes with her situation and obviously yearns for their friendship to develop to a more intimate baseline. One final, lucrative score ambles their way in the form of an isolated home on the outskirts of town, with the news of a denzien who has just been the recipient of a seven-figure settlement after his daughter was killed in a hit and run accident. Complications ensue when the gang discover that their target is also a service veteran (Stephen Lang) who was discharged after being struck blind by a rogue IED, although the prospect of robbing a recently bereaved, disabled war hero doesn’t appear to pose any particular moral conundrum for our aggressive anti-heroes. This sets the scene for a weaving tale of shifting audience empathy, with a host of twists and turns that would make Mephistopheles himself cackle with glee.
If I was magically transported to some hellish pitch session in Hollywood I’d cite Don’t Breathe as a delicious genre goulash baked with the ingredients of Panic Room and a dash of Cujo, sinisterly seasoned with the tense glass balancing set-piece of The Lost World and the grasping climax of Silence of The Lambs. When effectively executed single location thriller / horror movies can be fantastic experiences, trapping the camera in a claustrophobic cage, forcing the director and cinematographer into some unusual decisions and techniques to maintain a sense of apprehensive audience interest. Broadly speaking Don’t Breathe achieves an expert delineation and exploration of its cinematic space, drawing the cat-and-mouse game through the various levels and locales of theisdour and murky home, alongside some amusing plot contortions which might be increasingly absurd but retain a sense of creative and gleeful cruelty. One of the films quiet triumphs is navigating the oscillation of empathy between the intruders and the defender, it’s quite a clever method to challenge any notion of audience identification, expertly walking that fine line between not being too po-faced and severe, nor too flippant and absurd. When you realize you are holding your breath and gripping your palms in coiled apprehension while a repugnant thief is being hunted by a resourceful and brave blind dude it’s quite a disconcerting realization, as any normal decent person would want these swine apprehended as swiftly as possible, until some plot contortions completely pull the rug out from under your feet as the film shifts from urban thriller into pure, petrifying, scenario-specific horror.
That said these plot contortions run about ten minutes too long when a final round of conflict ensues, but thankfully Don’t Breathe doesn’t resort to some horror movie atrocity of cliches, preferring to follow a route which retains fidelity to the characters and their goals, an grip on the relation between character and genre trappings which would make John Carpenter proud. Ah, Carpenter you say? Well now, doesn’t that take me nicely into the recently announced BFI schedule for JC and while I’m unsurprised to see that no Q&A is forthcoming – a damn shame but no major shock given his cantankerous attitude and I’m seeing him live on the 31st anyway – I am simultaneously aggravated and excited. I’m frustrated that some of the films are only showing on the minuscule NFT3 screen which is very unfortunate, however the good news is all those I’ve selected to bolster my efforts earlier in the year for this Menagerie icon are in 35mm which might be some of the last chances to see some of these projected in that format given the way the industry is going – good luck ever seeing Halloween or The Thing in their original analogue format my learned friends. Still, this sets quite a challenging schedule for the next couple of months that moves directly from the week hence LFF into a trio of BFI, visits, with a few other surprises lurking on the horizon. But until then I heartily recommend Don’t Breathe for a compact, thumbscrew tightening tenseexperience, proving that alongside Hell & High Water there’s some life in the non-multiplex, franchise-free Hollywood sourced adoption of genre yet;