Halloween Review: Don't Breathe

From the director of the 2013 remake of Evil Dead, and the producer of the critically-acclaimed original, this past summer brought us one of the year's most spine-tingling and stomach-churning horror-thrillers in August's Don't Breathe. Finally settling in for this simple but expertly-crafted nail-biter, I was met with more surprises than I thought, as its cut-and-paste plot manifested into something wholly original. While its characters may occupy the stereotypical roles we've seen all throughout the genre, the crafty and graciously gasp-inducing thrills of Don't Breathe managed to keep me -- and my fellow moviegoers -- both uncomfortably irritated and pleasurably waiting for more.

Detroit delinquents Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) get their kicks by peddling quick cash for the stolen goods of the wealthy. Suddenly looking for a way out, the gang seeks out a job that'll not only make them big money, but also leave no trace that they were ever there. Looking to score on the major cash settlement of a blind war veteran in an abandoned neighborhood, the trio soon enters a brutal and relentless run for their lives, as the supposedly helpless man (Stephen Lang) toys with them in his own backyard. Trapped in a violent chase where a single breath could be your last, the trio of thieves must do whatever is necessary to get out  of the house unscathed. But as dark secrets come to light, and the blind man looms closer, not even the shadows can protect them from what's coming.

As far as the horror genre goes this year, you could say nothing really piqued my interest. With a gory handful of lackluster sequels like The Conjuring 2 and another addition in The Purge series populating most of the year, a few films managed to draw me in with their intriguing and not-so-commonplace themes. With February's indie 17th-century chiller The Witch being the only substantial film from the genre I saw this year, other films like the Jaws wannabe The Shallows and September's Blair Witch remake also piqued my interest. Missing out on August's Don't Breathe until now, while I wasn't expecting the film to be a massive horror success, I was expecting the film to be a satisfying thriller for the Halloween season.    

Settling in for this low-budget chiller on the eve of Halloween, I went in expecting less of a haunted-house, paranormal-obsessed gore-fest, and more of a tightly-wound nail-biter worthy enough to give me a fright. To my surprise, the low-level thriller of this summer's Don't Breathe managed to be a more fulfilling experience than I initially expected. Its trailers depicting your typical trio of rambunctious teens trekking into deadly territory with a seemingly-psychotic mad-man on their trail, I was pleasantly surprised at what director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) did with his elementary yet profoundly layered plot. What manifested into a bone-chilling adventure through the dark depths of a modern dungeon of twists and turns, Don't Breathe may have not ruled the summer scene, but it was definitely an enthralling and enjoyable flick for fans of the horror/thriller genre.

While the cast of the film may not have been anything too memorable -- the leading trio of Levy, Minnette, and Zovatto tossing in their best street-smart-turned-scared-straight performances -- the maniacal blind man that Stephen Lang expertly embodied was what really stole the show. Cementing a well-versed performance -- one surprisingly good for a horror film -- into his hard-edged and morally-ambiguous war vet persona, Lang's stand-out, silent-but-deadly performance managed to keep the film from straying down too many stereotypical avenues. While we may not get much background on many of the lead characters, Lang's emotional turmoil -- and subsequent sociopathic nature -- was revealed through the actor's captivating investigation into what a character simply dubbed "The Blind Man" could really be.

While the film's premise may parallel a number of other films of the genre -- at least in terms of structure -- and its characters take the shape of characters we've seen before, the imaginative style and skilled direction of director Fede Alvarez ended up being one of the hallmarks of the film. Turning the camera into a vile serpent, slithering into every dark crevice of the film's grim settling, Alvarez and his team worked almost to both tease and distract the audience. Drawing their eyes -- and ears -- both towards and away from the subject matter, Alvarez managed to craft a diabolical recipe for a fantastically-moulded thriller. Utilizing not only camera tricks, but also effective sound editing that created an eerie atmosphere amongst his characters, Alvarez tapped into the carnal thoughts of what the audience expected to happen, and twisted the result ever so slightly.

With that, while its jumpscares may not transcend the horror genre to anything note-worthy, the director's readiness to apply a refined and ultimately complex layer to the silver screen made the film's somewhat-cliche thrills feel almost refreshing. While one could easily play out the rest of the film's plot in their head before it actually caught up to them, Fede Alvarez played with the audience's expectations so much, and in a way that was so visually interesting, that one really couldn't ever know what might happen next. From Stephen Lang's diabolical agenda as "The Blind Man" to the trio's cunning methods of staying alive (which were rarely that cunning), the film managed to skew the truth, as well as the audience's expectations, so well that it made the viewing experience immensely -- and at times laughably -- entertaining.

Overall, while my viewing experience for this film may have taken a turn for the hilarious, rather than the frightening -- considering the college-aged audience of opinionated souls who surrounded me in the theater -- looking at the film itself, Don't Breathe was an enjoyable cheap fright for any fan of the horror-thriller genre. Whether you're purely disgusted or hopped up on chilling anticipation by the end of the film, Don't Breathe managed to draw me in with its simple-but-visually-intriquing premise, and keep me in the seat with its audacious method of filmmaking and relentless thrills.   

I gave Don't Breathe a 7 out of 10, because even in the face of a cliched premise and a slew of dry stereotypes, the film's sharp and ever-so-scheming direction and cinematography amplified it to a level above most horror films out there today. If paranormal catastrophes and electoral anarchy aren't your flavor, check out Don't Breathe for a refreshing -- and at times memorable -- thriller for the holiday. 

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