Director Fede Alvarez’ Evil Dead remake catapulted him to the top of modern horror filmmakers. While the likes of Ti West (The Sacrament) and Adam Wingard (You’re Next) have become festival darlings, it is the likes of Alvarez, James Wan (The Conjuring, Saw) and Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) that are the moneymakers, the ones that get bodies into the seats. Alvarez’ Evil Dead was a financial success, topping the box office on its opening weekend and making back more than double its budget. Don’t Breathe is on the same path, easily outperforming Sausage Party and Suicide Squad at the box office on its debut this past weekend.
With Sam Raimi in his corner (executive producer) and a proven box office record, Alvarez is seemingly here to stay. But do we want him to? Is Alvarez a worthy successor to Raimi?
Don’t Breathe follows a trio of young people living in the shambles of Detroit. Our characters Rocky, Alex and Money are thieves who use Alex’s dad’s job at a home security company to get access to houses across the city and rob them. They don’t steal cash (it’s a felony with a higher risk of jail time), sticking to valuables they can sell on the street afterwards. The goal is to get enough money to leave town. They’re almost there when they get wind of an old blind man who has thousands of dollars in cash from a court settlement after his only daughter was killed in a car accident. The man lives alone on a desolate street with no neighbours, and the cash is presumably inside.
Detroit is in ruins. The Motor City is nothing but closed factories, abandoned homes and deserted industrial spaces. No wonder it’s the perfect setting for horror movies in 2016 — luxurious homes in remote spaces or even the cliché but beloved cabin in the woods trope give way to the urban wasteland, a desolate and depressing city. It works for not only a realistic backstory for our characters (hopeless, desperately wanting to get out of town) but also creates the same sense of isolation. There are no neighbours for miles, no one will hear you scream or come to your rescue.
The Blind Man (he is given no name in the film) is of course not what he seems after he discovers and kills Money very early in the film. The other two would-be burglars have to try and sneak through the house and escape without The Blind Man noticing them, in a strange game of cat and mouse.
Alvarez focuses on the tension of these scenes, with Rocky and Alex constantly forced to stand perfectly still and not make a sound, or try to silently move throughout the house without bringing any attention to themselves. They cower in corners, just out of his reach, they flatten themselves against walls as he walks past, they slip out through doors that he just entered. In one scene reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs, the Blind Man takes out the lights entirely and Rocky and Alex shot in night vision are now the ones stumbling around blindly looking for their attacker.
The one thing missing from Don’t Breathe, in my opinion, was a sense of fun. The characters were all unlikeable and there was no one I wanted to root for. Rocky and Alex are criminals for various reasons (Rocky wants to leave her abusive family, Alex just wants Rocky) and have no qualms robbing a blind man. The Blind Man is a war vet, but also a vengeful psychopath who has a woman kidnapped and tied up in his basement. Even that woman is somewhat unlikable – she’s the rich lady who ran over his daughter years ago and paid him off instead of going to jail.
If the film had chosen someone for us to empathise with, the scenes of cat and mouse would have been elevated. If we wanted The Blind Man to take them out, or if we wanted Rocky to be our heroic final girl, the bated breath would turn into triumphant cheers at every attack or possible kill. Personally, I wanted the film to be on the side of the Blind Man. Who wouldn’t love watching him channel his inner Daredevil to take down some bratty kids?
The one thing that should have been missing from Don’t Breathe was the rape subplot. Rape has a long and convoluted history in horror films and more often than not makes an appearance. In this one, The Blind Man has forcibly impregnated the woman he was holding captive, and tries to do the same to Rocky. She is tied up, hoisted into the air and her pants cut open (in a painstaking closeup). The Blind Man then fills a turkey baster with his refrigerated semen, preparing to insert it into Rocky, and says “I’m no rapist.” Yes, yes you are. This is a rape scene, Alvarez, and a rape plot line that doesn’t add a thing to the story.
Don’t Breathe is going to be one of those lesser entries into the horror canon, that are completely beloved by some despite being largely underwhelming. It will sit nicely alongside The Mist or The Strangers, rarely revisited but usually referenced as one of the better “modern” horror films. Alvarez himself is all but assured to continue his ascension into the horror director canon, but I’d rather wait for someone who feels more like Raimi’s shocking, bloody fun rather than someone who just gets his stamp of approval.