The greatest horror films often thrive on simplicity, the idea that somebody or something dangerous could be in the most comfortable of places. It can certainly help to take the audience into their deeper, more psychological fears, but it’s not a requirement. However, when a horror film sells itself on bare bones storytelling, it needs to deliver completely on its premise. With Don’t Breathe, Evil Dead director Fede Alvarez intends to not only deliver, but to permanently paint his viewers’ knuckles white. Don’t Breathe isn’t just the title of this movie, but an order to any crowd who braves it.
The story centers on Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto). They’re a group of small time crooks who think they have found the score of a lifetime. Perfect timing too, as Rocky intends to leave town with her daughter and make a new life. The heist: steal a large stockpile of cash from an elderly blind man (Stephen Lang). However, upon entering the blind man’s house, they discover that their mark is not invalid. Quite the opposite, in fact, a ruthless killing machine hell-bent on brutal payback against these ill-advised criminals.
Alvarez doesn’t waste a moment of screen time here. He gives us just enough exposition so that we can learn who these people are, and then we’re off. From the moment these kids enter the house to the closing credits, Alvarez builds a palpable tension, doing a masterful job working in such a confined space. Not only does he exploit every nook and cranny for potential scares but his camera is often playful. In fact, the film’s most impressive moment might be a brilliant long take that simply uses sound to build fear. Lang isn’t even in play yet, but as the camera swoops throughout his home we can practically hear it taunting us.
Watching this film unfold is like being in the middle of an amazing haunted house, every inch of it is lovingly designed to send chills down our spines. Alvarez doesn’t simply rely on one gimmick to do this, constantly flipping the script and changing the dynamics of the scares. Some sequences rely on jump scares, others rely on clever lighting tricks, and a few more are full on brawls. This unpredictability is what keeps the film moving, and what will ultimately make it so re-watchable. It’s the kind of movie that people will show their friends just to see their reaction to the surprises.
Selling us on the terror is the fantastic group of actors stuck in Alvarez’s death trap. Jane Levy, a veteran of being tortured by Alvarez, is as great here as she was in Evil Dead. She’s a subdued and relatable screen presence who gets pushed to the edge and explodes into action. Her tough and yet vulnerable turn here shows shades of Terminator era Linda Hamilton. Hopefully, this film will garner enough of an audience to take her to the next level. Speaking of a Terminator, Stephen Lang is a force of nature as the sightless, nameless killer. Taking influence from cinema’s greatest slashers, Lang relies mostly on imposing body language. He’s a man of few words, but the moment he enters a room, he sends a chill through it. While occasionally he descends into super soldier territory, the film does a great job of humanizing him. Once we do finally find out some more about him, Lang completely sells this man’s descent into madness. Meanwhile, Minnette also commendably throws himself into several very physical action sequences while remaining the film’s most grounded character.
The only major fault here is that, occasionally, it does feel like repetitive territory for Alvarez. After all, Evil Dead essentially had this same premise with monsters in Lang’s place. As such, there are inevitably quite a few beats that feel a bit derivative. However, there is one very fortunate change. Evil Dead greatly relied on some very impressive practical gore for scares. In Don’t Breathe, there is very minimal gore, with all the scares stemming from the film’s atmosphere. Hopefully, Alvarez will completely change things up with his next project. If he can bring his brand of horrific imagery to something radically different, then it might be time to place him among the greats of his generation.
Don’t Breathe works with a lot of the same tools that many cheap horror films use. However, it makes the majority of its contemporaries look completely lazy in comparison. The love and attention to detail that Fede Alvarez puts into every single scare is remarkable. This is a film made to create a bonding experience amongst an audience of strangers. It’s a horror rock concert, where the entire theater will scream and gasp in unison. While it is definitely time for Alvarez to stretch beyond his brand of housebound horror, he just may be the current master of it.