It would be fair to say that my relationship with horror/horror thrillers was one that existed mainly in the realm of girly sleepovers and teenage group trips to the cinema all those years ago, when the need for cinematic quality was low and the desire for enjoyable jump scares was high. Of course, there are the classics of the genre, the Halloweens, the Omens, the Psychos that are truly worthy of legendary status, but the most part, I still see horror as something to be enjoyed with friends to provide a temporary visceral thrill. With that teen spirit in mind, a friend and I approached Don’t Breathe with low quality expectations but hopes of being forced to hide behind our hands.
The film centres around three teenage burglars (played by Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) who, hoping to make one final big score before getting out of their dump of a town, plan to rob the house of a blind military veteran (Stephen Lang) who is believed to be in possession of $300,000 in cash. Anticipating the task of stealing from a blind man to be easy, the teen’s lives are thrown in to danger when, in true plot twist fashion, the veteran turns out to be much more than they had bargained for. Running at a sharp 88 minutes, the bulk of the narrative operates as a relentless, tensioned filled game of cat and mouse within the confines of veteran Norman Nordstrom’s house, with a mixture of heightened suspense and occasional, appropriately judged gore that feels earned rather than forced in comparison to the gore porn filled franchises that have, literally, done it all to death at this point. As with the majority of horror thrillers, a degree of suspension of disbelief is needed with regards to certain plot choices that characters make, a few of the classic “why did he run upstairs rather than out the door!”, “why didn’t they just smash him around the head right then!” kind of responses were uttered along the way, but if you leave your hyper critical brain at home, what you are treated to is a refreshingly inventive and unique take on the home invasion genre that packs more than enough punch to give you and your friends the heebie-jeebies and jump scares that you crave. Though the film does abide by many of the classic horror thriller tropes, it does break away from the mould in some aspects, revealing certain plot twists and set pieces that, to be frank, can never be unseen! Ultimately, the short running time and single house setting give Don’t Breathe a scaled back, almost retro vibe, and this retro vibe combined with narrative twists that feel completely innovative and fresh make for a fun and exhilarating experience that is sure to leave you exhausted from tension by the end.
The film relies on audience engagement with the characters in order to hook us in to the narrative, after all, if you don’t care about the fates of the protagonists, the plot becomes completely inconsequential. Daniel Zovatto as Money is perhaps the least important of the teen trio, giving a fairly standard performance as the classic delinquent whose bravado proves to be his downfall, and it is rather in Jane Levy as Rocky and Dylan Minnette as Alex that the audience are given characters to support and empathise with. As Rocky, Levy gives her best ‘young woman with more to think about then just herself’, with the audience being given a brief glimpse of her terrible home life and kid sister to look after. In a step up in horror stakes from Goosebumps earlier in the year, as Alex, Minnette plays the ‘young man who is out of this depth but needs to find inner strength to conquer evil’, and for the most part he does this very well. Though the characters can be accused of being fairly archetypical in their construction, the truth is that in a narrative like this that so quickly descends in to horror cat and mouse chaos, that is just about all you need to get on board. As the underestimated, mysterious blind veteran Norman Nordstrom, Stephan Lang gives a silently menacing performance, barely uttering a word yet saying so much with the help of some great contact lenses to emphasise his lack of sight. As the blind man, Lang possesses a physicality that is threatening yet vulnerable at the same time, evoking images of some of the genre’s greatest strong but silent types such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. Aside from his desire to retain his $300,000, the plot takes Nordstrom’s character in to deeper, more disturbing horror territory, and though it makes for some unforgettable, uncomfortable viewing, it sure does give the picture that extra jolt of innovation that takes it from a run of the mill him invasion movie to something ever so slightly different.
Overall, Don’t Breathe is a pleasant surprise, if by pleasant, you are looking for something that is going to make you feel uncomfortable, tense, claustrophobic, uneasy and shocked in equal measure! Absolutely one for a group outing in which everybody is in the mood to be scared. In fact, as is the case with most horror films, the fuller the cinema you can see it in, the better the experience will be.