What Went Right With… Don’t Breathe (2016)?

A turkey baster with semen and text "Don't Breathe"


I was rather disappointed after watching the remake of Evil Dead. In my opinion, Fede Alvarez stripped all that was fun and enjoyable from Sam Raimi’s 1981 original, and aside from the over-the-top, gore-filled finale, his attempted reboot was largely a lacklustre and overrated film. It was quite surprising then, that I found Alvarez’ follow-up Don’t Breathe, to be so entertaining. Like Evil Dead, the plot of Don’t Breathe was almost a remake, or at least heavily influenced by another horror classic; Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991). But, by changing the plot slightly, Fede was able to create a classic of his own, a film that’s extremely tense and unrelenting with its thrills and scares. By blending Craven’s movie with another horror classic; See No Evil (1971) (reversing the blind character’s role), borrowing a few minor plot elements from Cujo (1983) (trapped inside a car with a dog outside), and Silence Of The Lambs (1991) (trapped in a dark basement with a crazy bloke who’s holding someone captive) Don’t Breathe was a genre mash-up that actually worked.

This film, in case you haven’t seen it, is about a trio of thieves living in Detroit, who specialise in breaking and entering homes. In U.S. law, pilfering anything over $10,000 is apparently grand larceny so our three main characters usually stick to small items such as watches and jewellery. But, inside 1837 Buena Vista Street, a property belonging to a blind “Army Vet loner”, there’s upward of $300,000 which means if they “do it right” they’ll never have to steal anything from anyone every again. Of course things don’t go to plan and our anti-heroes soon find themselves at the mercy of a visually-impaired madman.

In terms of characters, we have one female (Rocky played by Jane Levy) and two males (Money played by Daniel Zovatto and Alex played by Dylan Minnette). Rocky has aspirations of fleeing the city with her younger sister and travelling to California, escaping her neglectful mother and seeing the back of her Nazi stepdad. Money is our gang’s leader, a sexist, wigger-ish twat who basically looks like a Smartprice Jared Leto from Panic Room. Incidentally, Panic Room‘s opening titles created by The Picture Mill, seem to have inspired the end titles of this movie. But I digress. Money is a rather annoying character like most of the people in Evil Dead (although, at least the main douche dies early on here). In Evil Dead, Jane Levy was the best actor amongst a bunch of soap opera types, and Levy is once again the one to watch. Along with Stephen Lang (the Blind Man) we’re thankfully left with the best two actors to pit it out toward the end.

Alex’s dad works at “Liminal Security” which makes breaking into their protected and monitored homes a cinch, but not so in number 1837. This is a dark, grubby, labyrinthine property on multiple levels, boarded-up, with barred windows, a guard dog, and a surprise in the basement. Navigating this home for both our protagonists and us viewers is like making your way through a maze of horrors. It’s a gripping watch, even on repeat viewings, thanks largely to the direction and editing which is taut and to-the-point.

The screenplay is also worth mentioning. With the line “just ’cause he’s blind, don’t mean he’s a saint, bro”, the character who starts off as a victim suddenly becomes the bad-guy; a rapist (even though he declares “I’m not a rapist” as he’s thawing his semen ready to impregnate his imprisoned prey!). Buena Vista Street is located in a ghost town littered with abandoned houses. The same neighbourhood that’s quiet and easy to steal from is in turn isolated and far from help when you need it, kinda like Trespass (1992) or Judgment Night (1993). This turning subjects and locations on their head is what makes the writing so great.

With pubic hair inside the semen during the turkey baster scene, and the distressed set, thieving is shown as seedy and grimy; something that isn’t cool or fun and may end in misery. Aside from that lesson in morality, we have at least one overturned idea. In real-life we’ve had numerous army-veteran serial killers and rapists but making a patriotic, fatigue-wearing “hero” the villain is rarely done in Hollywood. With the news mentioning a “blind veteran terrorized by teens”, I like this subversion of typical concepts and characters (I also enjoyed the fact that the broadcast media in the film, as in real life, miss the most important aspects of a news story). Once it’s over, aside from a couple of deaths and the theft of cash, everyone gets what they deserve, more or less, making this a satisfying tale of self-serving Robin Hoods.

Like I said before, much of the plot is from The People Under The Stairs; poor kids stealing money from a maze-like home with someone trapped in the basement or cellar, and there’s a Rottweiler dog! These two flicks are so similar that Wes Craven deserves some sort of Executive Producer credit. Doing away with the slumlord versus poor folk allegory, Don’t Breathe has nothing deep to say but it’s more tense with more jump scares. Because the end result is so good, I don’t care that the narrative is borrowed from the 1990’s.

Along with films like Searching, Run, Greta, Cold In July, and A Walk Among The Tombstones, this is one of the best English speaking or Hollywood-made thrillers of the last two decades. It’s potentially annoying then, that the sequel, at least judging by the trailer, looks like a disappointment by comparison. Hopefully Don’t Breathe 2 is something more than what the trailer shows (which is seemingly everything). It looks to me like the bad guy is the good guy in the new movie, and okay, he’s seen the death of his daughter but he’s still a sexual assaulting arsehole, not John frigging Rambo! With a different director, who knows if this follow-up will be able to thrill us as much as the original did. I won’t…

Hold My Breath.

Writing: 8/10

Directing: 9/10

Acting: 6/10

Overall: 9/10

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