Don’t Breathe is a classic howler, a full-throttle white knuckler that is precisely designed to become a cult classic. I suppose that’s the effect of the post-modern new world order of cinematic horror, in which cult status is planned rather than conjured, manufactured as opposed to earned. And yet this movie does work hard for its slam-shock scares, squeezing every ounce of clever self-referential terror out of its uber-efficient sub-90-minute running time. It’s a simple and silly little lark – if this kind of slash-and-shoot, blood-spilling fright flick can be described in such frothy terms – but within those confines, it works.
Not surprising that this genre chaser is the work of Fede Alvarez, he who brought us the 2013 Evil Dead remake and worked on the TV reboot of From Dusk Till Dawn. Don’t Breathe isn’t a reimagining of any existing material, but it is such a faithful and reverent student of the genre that it almost feels like an adaptation of sorts. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues do a high-concept riff on the claustrophobic nerve-rattler, replete with a ludicrously resilient and indestructible villain and a dastardly fun house peppered with Grand Guignol treachery and providing few exit paths. It’s the sort of lean-and-mean enterprise that feels molded from the DNA of early Tobe Hooper or Sam Raimi (and indeed, Raimi is a producer on this film).
Cleverer still, rather than follow the path of most modern horror adaptations, which are intent on punching up the screenplay with impossibly cute artificial lingo, casting a bunch of stock Abercrombie models, and juicing the content with gratuitous sex and gore, Don’t Breathe focuses its gaze squarely on tension. There’s plenty of harsh violence and disturbing implications, to be sure, but it’s far removed from the body-counting, body-ogling norm.
The narrative lines are as simple and clean as possible. Thematically speaking, this is a far cry from the creepy complexity of Green Room, but that’s not really what the doctor order in this case. Rocky (Jane Levy) lives in the slums of Detroit with her drug-addled mother and long-suffering baby sister, and she gets by on the spoils of the heists she conducts with friends Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto). They’re like a low-rent Bling Ring, raiding local houses for items they later pawn for cash from a local kingpin. But Rocky seeks the kind of score that can allow her to move away from her misery and start a new life with her sister, and she finds it in the case of a blind Iraq War veteran who lives alone and is apparently stashing away a $300,000 wrongful death settlement. The thieving trio embarks on their “one last heist” with the assumption that it will be easy.
BUT THEY’RE WRONG! And that’s the kind of movie Don’t Breathe is – it functions like an all-caps sentence punctuated with an exclamation point. A long series of exclamation points, as it happens. The kids’ nemesis, known only as “The Blind Man” (Stephen Lang), is sensorily supercharged in lieu of his sight, which allows him to become an uncommonly wily and ridiculously durable adversary. Each subsequent narrative roadblock he dishes out is more preposterously frustrating than the one that preceded it, and eventually even the most cynical viewer (hi) has to shake it off, smirk, and let it ride.
It’s all intentional anyway, part and parcel of the film’s gleefully twisted provocation. Sometimes said provocation is too transparent for its own good – sometimes the “staying quiet around blind villain” concept is too on the nose, the tension is occasionally cranked too hard, and the thematic strokes are frequently ineloquent. Not everything works seamlessly…but then, isn’t that kind of the point of a cult movie? And whether by accident or by design, a cult classic Don’t Breathe will become.