AUGUST 26, 2016
I've often noted that the home invasion sub-genre has limited options for as much variety as you see in slashers, survival horror, etc. This doesn't mean the films are getting bad, but it's gonna take some inspired ideas to keep the concept fresh, and that's precisely what Fede Alvarez has done with Don't Breathe, a home invasion movie that swaps the usual roles, making our heroes into the ones that enter someone's home while the villain is the guy that actually lives there. It's not a deconstruction or anything like that, but it offers those same kind of moments and thrills all while playing up the notion that our heroes aren't in their comfort zone this time - they're not even sure how to find their way around the predictably oversized home, with a labyrinthine basement and man-sized air ducts, and a dog that gets to be a mini-villain instead of just getting offed like the poor mutts usually do in these things when the bad guy needs to reduce threats.
Of course, the real hook of the movie isn't the inverse invasion idea - it's the fact that the villain (Stephen Lang) is a blind man. He's no saint (bro), and his senses of smell and hearing have been attuned to make up for the lack of sight, but what really works about the film is that (save for a bit at the end) he's not preternaturally gifted with a sense of perception like Daredevil or Eli (the one with the Book). Lang is fond of firing his gun, but he's a horrible shot; the only times he manages to hit anything of note it's basically by chance, and ends up destroying more of his own stuff than the damn robbers. He also makes plenty of mistakes that he wouldn't had he been able to see; there's a great example in the 3rd act that I can't really illustrate (it involves garden shears), and even with his attuned hearing he walks right past our heroes more than once without realizing that they were within reach. The movie even finds a few moments of levity related to his disability - there's an upside down framed photo in his living room that I couldn't help but smirk at even though it's not exactly the most PC gag in the world.
In fact, I wish Alvarez had spent more time on the sequence where Lang isn't aware anyone else is in the house with him. As anyone who has seen the trailer knows, our heroes are a trio who break into his home, but when he catches and kills one, he is under the impression the man was working alone. There's about 10-15 minutes (less?) where he works to clean up the body and reinforce the entry points, most of which involves the other two having to stay quiet/still to not give their position away, and to me this was more satisfying and even suspenseful than the more traditional cat and mouse stuff that followed. Not that the latter half lacks thrills - Lang's the one who knows his way around, after all, so every single escape attempt (and subsequent scare) is capped with him showing up to block their path, a standard villain move that makes a lot more sense here than in the average slasher. Of COURSE he'll get ahead of them - they're often going slow trying to stay quiet and also trying to find their way around, whereas he's spent who knows how many years finding his way around the place in the same darkness they're currently battling. It never feels like a cheat when he "teleports" somewhere - I totally buy that he'd be able to move around with precision and use their unfamiliarity with the layout to his advantage.
But the quieter bits offered that kind of breath-holding audience experience - you can hear a pin drop in the theater when Jane Levy or Dylan Minnette accidentally step on a creaky board or find themselves pinned down in a bathroom or something as he goes about his business. By the end, they're not even trying to be quiet half the time - it's just stalk n' chase fare with a hook. To put it another way, if he wasn't blind, the first chunk of the movie wouldn't make any sense, but (save for his poor marksmanship) the rest would pretty much play out the same. The film already feels a bit like The People Under The Stairs (poor people robbing some asshole to better their shitty lives), right down to the dog that can pursue them in smaller areas, so I wish there was more opportunity for the blind factor to play a part in his pursuit. I mean, hell, near the end he manages to find Levy like a block away (before you cry spoiler, the movie opens with him bringing her back to his house before rewinding to see how she got into that situation), so I'd be lying if I said I preferred the perverse sight (heh) of a borderline Michael Myers not even knowing he had a couple of victims in the same room.
Also (now THIS is spoiler territory, skip this paragraph if you wish) the script described a bit too much of a hellish life for our heroine to escape from, making it far from likely that she'd be killed or even that she'd somehow escape without the money. It's not enough that her mom was just a drunk that didn't care (in the one scene we get of her home life, she takes care of her little sister while the mom gets drunk on the couch, mumbling insults her way), but we also find out she was abused (locked in a trunk!), and to top it off she promises her little sister that she's going to take her away from their Detroit hellhole in favor of California. In other words, there is little to no doubt she will succeed, so the suspense factor is a bit crippled. Faring better in that department is Minnette's character, who seems to have an OK life and is seemingly just doing this because he's in love with her. When Lang sets his non-sights on Minnette, I felt myself tensing up again, but for her, apart from one diversion I won't spoil (except to say that it yields an INCREDIBLE sight gag involving a stray hair or two), I never really felt she was in any real danger, because I am too attuned to major studio horror movies (even R-rated ones) to buy the idea that she'd be killed off and that poor little sister would be abandoned. Minnette's less noble motives made his survival chances a lot smaller, and in turn his scenes (they're split up more often than not, I think) get back a lot of that nailbiter suspense that was reduced once Lang was on the prowl.
Another thing in the movie's favor is that Lang isn't just some mindless psycho - he's even kind of sympathetic in a few moments. The reason he has money is because he got a big settlement from a rich family whose daughter killed his in a car accident, and it's downright heartbreaking when they find him sleeping with a home video. of his 3-4ish daughter playing and singing playing in the background. He obviously can only hear the sounds of his daughter that was taken away from him so cruelly, and (over emotional dad alert!) in that moment I was suddenly paralyzed with fear that the tape would somehow get broken over the course of the evening. Like, grab the money and leave, fine - but please don't take away his sleeping aid! And a later plot development allows us to feel kind of bad for him (in an icky way) as he deals with another loss - it was unexpected and beneficial to the film's overall strength. I know I called him Michael Myers before, but there's a real guy in there that surfaces every now and then - just enough to keep balance, because while he's "the bad guy", he's also a guy defending his home and property from robbers. In People Under the Stairs, Fool was kind of suckered into the crime - these three are all old enough to know right from wrong.
Speaking of spoilers, I was also happy to realize the trailer was built mostly on scenes from the film's first half. It still gives too much away, I think (i.e. the existence of another person in the house, if not their actual role in the proceedings), but at least there's a point where I realized the only reason I knew what was coming was due to the film's own dumb choice to show a scene from near the end right at the top. It's thankfully vague compared to some others that have pulled this stunt, but there's enough info in what we see - and what we DON'T see - to make me wish they rethought this decision. I get what they're trying to do, in order to "surprise" us later, but it's too obvious that's the plan - better to just not set up that sort of thing at all rather than let us watch the movie wondering when the movie will "catch up" to what we already saw.
Ultimately, I'm surprised I was able to write seven paragraphs about the movie, because what really works about it is how simplistic it is. No one shows up to help the heroes (i.e. a cop who heard a disturbance or whatever), the house is big without being silly (no Halloween: Resurrection style endless basement/tunnel section), no one has long passages of dialogue, etc. It's just lean and efficient, and dark enough to earn its R rating without becoming nihilistic and unpleasant - and far more satisfying to me than Alvarez' previous film, the Evil Dead remake (Sam Raimi apparently still stands by it - he produced this one too). Since it's built on suspense and borderline plotless, I'm not sure I'd ever revisit it (plus I'm not sure I could handle the goofy ladybug shit again), but for the one time it's a damn satisfying thriller that gets more right than wrong, and continues the unprecedented horror hit streak - all five of this summer's major horror releases (this, Purge 3, Conjuring 2, Shallows, and Lights Out) were winners, something that's even more impressive when you consider how weak the big tentpoles have been on average. And even though I don't particularly love the Evil Dead remake, I can certainly agree that Alvarez is no hack, and I hope he sticks around in the genre for a while.
What say you?
P.S. There's a new Screen Gems logo attached to the film, so I feel obligated to share this again instead of the trailer that gives too much away.