If there was a “Most Under-Appreciated Film” award, 2016’s winner would have been Fede Alvarez’s epic directorial second act, Don’t Breathe. At first glance, this film appears a cheap house-invasion story: three young adults break into a man’s house to steal his fortune. Alvarez’s spin on this tale is that the villain is, instead of the invaders, the homeowner.
While the trailers may have confused many moviegoers, Don’t Breathe is indeed in the horror genre. Unlike the garden-variety modern horror movies being pushed out today, this film builds a strong connection with its main character — or “Final Girl” as they are so lovingly called in the genre — from the start.
Rocky is from a broken family and has a goal for the future. Stealing this man’s money isn’t for the sake of money itself, but money as a means to freedom. The audience now sympathizes with the criminals, of which they would usually see as the villains.
The cinematography of this film is magical. The opening scene is a peek into the future, giving the audience questions to ask and interest into how we get here. Several times the camera works to give the film a claustrophobic feel, zooming in close on a character’s face to reveal the horror seeping into their eyes. There are many moments of creeping weariness with no explanation until later in the film, harking back to classics like The Shining. Shots of lit hallways and lived- in rooms become uneasy through pristine use of camera, editing, and score.
Only on the second watch will one discover a scene entirely dedicated to taking the viewer on a visual journey through this house, every brief stop in a room or on a specific item foreshadowing to an event to later unfurl.
The performance of Stephen Lang as the Blind Man is horrifying. This is a character that the audience is asked to hate for no reason. He is, after all, just protecting himself from the people who have broken into his home. Lang’s use of body movement, facial acting, and voice acting give the character a creepy feeling from the get-go. The score only elevates this unease, and with the story beginning from Rocky’s perspective, the Blind Man is immediately vilified against all moral instincts.
These horrendous sequences become moments of victory for the protagonist, and one that audiences found themselves cheering for.
There are hints, slowly teased, that the Blind Man may be more sinister than he seems. When the climax hits and the true twist of the film is revealed, the audience has lost all question of the heroes’ righteousness in the matter.
From the director of the 2013 Evil Dead remake — a film regarded as one of the goriest and most difficult to stomach horror films of the last ten years — you would expect this film to be filled with blood. This, of course, is not the case in the least.
The viewers are treated to mostly tasteful bloodshed, in some ways almost Hitchcockian in nature. The parts of this film that made audiences squirm were, instead, purely from body horror. Not a Cronenberg, sci-fi body horror, but one that is entirely biologically plausible.
It is a type of body horror that, for any female viewer, will sit deep in the pit of the stomach and slowly crawl up the throat. These horrendous sequences become moments of victory for the protagonist, and one that audiences found themselves cheering for.
One of the things best executed in this film is suspense. This is used particularly in the “blackout” scene, where two of the protagonists are running around in the dark trying to escape the Blind Man. The scene is shot in black and white, giving the atmosphere an unsettling age. The entire sequence feels almost like a perfected hybrid between the night vision scene from Silence of The Lambs and Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game”. The protagonists’ hands clumsily grasp for stability, their pupils searching for any shred of light, while the Blind Man gracefully hunts them in darkness. It is also the scene where the score shines, with drums that clearly play into the feeling of war between these characters.
Unlike most modern horror, this film does not depend on cheap jump-scares. The few jump-scares found are definitely not cheap, including the scenes involving the Blind Man’s faithful dog, giving the audience a Cujo-esque dread and building on the idea that the Final Girl of this film is truly worth the title.
It is a film that is not for the faint of heart, but for those who are begging to be challenged by the horror genre.
The surrounding jump-scares usually involve the Blind Man showing up in unexpected places, with each scare playing off of the last as if Rocky is facing the trials of her own, personal epic. The horror of this film is, instead of jumpy, made slowly and stacked dauntingly on the shoulders of the viewer.
The audience is asked to leave this film with a heavy heart and a racing mind. The relief of Don’t Breathe is fleeting and almost spiteful. Alvarez dares the audience to believe that this is the end of the story. The ending is so gut-wrenchingly lacking in closure that by the time the viewers sort out what they think about the film, they are salivating for more. It is a film that is not for the faint of heart, but for those who are begging to be challenged by the horror genre. A sequel has not yet been officially announced, but viewers are already buzzing about what may be to come.