Fede Alvarez’s first feature was the rock solid, if slightly unnecessary remake of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. He is back with an original idea this time, bringing along Raimi as a producer and again casting Jane Levy in the lead role. Its title, Don’t Breathe, serves as instruction to both its characters and its viewers, who will be holding their breath for different reasons.
Detroit is revealed as the setting by tracking shots that creep through its empty streets. The derelict suburbs are immediately discomforting, recalling 2014’s excellent indie-chiller It Follows which shared the locale. Daniel Zovatto, who appeared in that film, joins Levy and Dylan Minnette as a trio of delinquent burglars. Alvarez efficiently establishes their relationship to each other, and their motivations for robbing what few homes remain. They discuss plans for “one last score,” lifting a favourite theme from the heist genre and its implicit foreshadowing: it will not go to plan. Their target is exmilitary, lives alone, and, word on the tumbleweed-strewn street is, he has a fat stack of cash somewhere in his house. He’s also blind. Sounds like a sure thing, right?
Not when “the Blind Man” is embodied by silver-haired, certified ass-kicker Stephen Lang. He is a frightening and compelling villain, barely impeded by his handicap. He has the home ground advantage, and in horror tradition is always one step ahead of his turnabout victims. But when he vanishes and silently reappears behind one of our protagonists, it never breaks the logic of the film. He is not supernatural. He is just a man; and man is capable of terrifying things.
When the hoodlums enter the house, the camera shifts from the omniscient eye that observed the bleak milieu outside, and gets in close and personal. It can now only see what they see, and adopts a videogame aesthetic. In a lengthy one-shot, the camera leers over the shoulder of the characters as though the viewer wields a controller, making them complicit in the crime they are witnessing. It also floats away to observe certain objects of the environment in ominous close-up, suggesting they will be relevant later, ala items or objectives in a game: the alarm system on the wall; a hammer on a tool rack; a hand cannon taped to the underside of a bed. The seamless long take in itself evokes videogames – there are no cuts in the virtual world. Indeed, this is another world the characters, and we as their accomplices, have entered. This is the domain of the Blind Man.
The film makes the best use of its premise in a cat-and-mouse sequence in the pitch black basement. The camera snaps to infrared vision and lurches along with our panicked cast, pupils dilated, as they knock things over and alert the Blind Man to their position. Strong sound design is imperative to scenes like this, and the razor fine line between silence and deafening noise is used very effectively. The score, too, is subtly employed to echo the groans of the creaking house.
Don’t Breathe is relentless, and benefits from superlative performances by Lang and Levy. It has a tight runtime, and is satisfyingly gruesome without veering into the self-parody that infects so much of modern horror. Most crucially of all, at its centre is an original horror villain. How we needed one of those.
Alex Marsden studies film at Monash University by day, and watches movies all night.