Don’t Breathe (2016)

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Two hallmarks of the horror-slasher genre are that we always take the victim’s side and that we are cool with people dying multiple times. It’s a genre that uses standard fear formulas like good and bad guys trapped in dark enclosed spaces, maybe a mad dog thrown in or an evil old man with awesome strength. The genre-bending Don’t Breathe (2016) carves out new space by making everyone a victim and adding enough surprises and high-tension atmospherics to keep you stuck on the edge of your seat.

Three break-and-enter thugs decide to target the isolated home of a blind Army vet (Stephen Lang) to steal the big payout he received after the death of his daughter. The stereotypes are the usual mix: the gal who wants enough money to stop stealing, the guy who is scared of everything, and the psychotic one who we don’t see for very long. The rest of the story is full of well-worn slasher tropes: the blind vet still has elite combat skills, the scared guy is always heading for the door, but the blond gal endures the worst.

Like most horrors, males are dispatched quickly while women must endure prolonged helpless panic for the cinematic enjoyment of the male gaze. When all the doors are locked and the lights go out, it’s a level playing field in the rambling old house that the blind man navigates by touch, smell and hearing. The basement is full of surprise and that darn dog has more combat tricks than you could imagine. In terms of plot, it has all been done before but this one nails it for steadily escalating tension and sustained terror.

There are enough genre innovations to make this film interesting but what really stands out is the filming, soundtrack and lighting. Nervy hand-held camerawork pokes into closets and runs down hallways, always capturing eyes fully dilated. The vet is the star actor while the thugs all over-act their parts, although there is minimal dialogue as whispers or breathing reveals where you are. Like all horrors, the lighting is scary low but when it switches to infra-red everyone is as blind as the vet while the soundtrack finds notes that tingle your brain. The cast are amazingly resilient as they are slashed for most of eighty-three minutes and recycling the not-quite-dead can be wearying. Although not a great fan of the genre, this one had my attention right up to its formulaic ending.

3 half stars

Director: Fede Alvarez

Stars: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette