Directed by: Fede Alvarez || Produced by: Fede Alvarez, Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert
Screenplay by: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues || Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang, Franciska Torocsik, Emma Bercovici, Christian Zagia, Katia Bokor, Sergej Onopko
Music by: Roque Banos || Cinematography: Pedro Luque || Edited by: Eric L. Beason, Louise Ford, Gardner Gould || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 88 minutes
As I’ve noted before, the 2010s have seen a resurgence in independent, low-budget (even for the genre) horror pictures as the major studio wide-releases continue to underperform. I’ve long sneered at film buffs’ tendency to laud independent dramas (i.e. awards’ bait, political bullshit) for little reason beyond contrarian arrogance, but with regards to both the comedy and horror genres, in this modern age of streaming services and respected straight-to-home-video releases, these cinematic formulas are finding new life.
Don’t Breathe, another plainly titled, seemingly generic wide-release horror feature, is the exception to the rule. As a theatrical release, it is one of 2016’s most profitable films (a $155 million box office from a $10 million budget), and would be the year’s best horror film had it not been for The Witch (2015). The film boasts no stars, minus a moderate-level name in antagonist Stephen Lang, is directed and co-written by an otherwise unknown filmmaker, Fede Alvarez, and features one of the schlockiest, most low-brow horror premises in recent memory: Three teenage hoodlums (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Movatto) attempt to rob a blind man’s mattress-savings in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood. The story only gets grungier from there.
In narrative terms, this is as basic and grindhouse as wide-release films come, short of Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez-throwback features. Color me surprised, because Alvarez executes the tried and true filmmaking magic of directing B-level material with A-level craftsmanship and dedication. Not only is Don’t Breathe expertly lit, staged, and bolstered by a variety of beautiful vertical tracking shots, but its slightly non-chronological storytelling and editing take advantage of strong narrative twists and memorable character choices. Don’t Breathe’s (henceforth, DB) direction is the true star of the film, but its tight screenplay is also a benchmark for aspiring horror screenwriters or wannabe filmmakers on a budget. The movie clocks in at an efficient 88 minutes, yet never feels rushed despite its often exhausting pace. Visible, realistic character choices are presented early and often, and keeps one emotionally invested in each major character throughout the entire plot. Dumb horror character cliches are absent, God bless them…
Most of the film takes place within Lang’s ominous, prison-like apartment, but the principal photography done in Hungary replicates the modern day urban industrial decay of America’s greatest automotive city with disturbing effectiveness. Both DB’s nighttime and daytime cinematography convey foreboding isolation and grim tone in unique ways, reminding the audience of the principal characters’ powerlessness and Lang’s uncanny ability to suck his would-be robbers deeper into his abode to punish them for their wicked ways.
DB also features a low-key, yet memorable soundtrack that combines unsettling string ensembles with ambient sound FX. It crescendos where appropriate but refrains from accentuating jump-scares or providing cheap exclamatory noises. Like the film’s visuals, its soundtrack and sound editing emphasize danger lurking around every corner, and double-down on Lang’s vengeful resilience. The all-encompassing, all-defining word of this film’s script, direction, and particularly its aesthetic design, would be “effective.” Not pretty, not extravagant, and not complex. Effective.
DB flaunts few weaknesses, most of which have to do with its inoffensive simplicity. Perhaps the one moment that bugged me throughout the movie was its epilogue, which felt like an unnecessary cliffhanger or hint of a future sequel. It is the lone character dilemma in the narrative that doesn’t feel executed properly, or that could have been excised altogether.
All in all, Don’t Breathe is a strong horror picture that embraces reliable genre formula candycoated with minor narrative subversions. It is as much an example of Stephen Lang’s versatility as an actor as it is a testament to Fede Alvarez’s budding career as a filmmaker, and offers hope that future wide-release horror movies will embrace its attention to detail, however straightforward. If nothing else, Don’t Breathe has perked my interest in Alvarez’s 2013 Evil Dead remake, however ambivalent I am about that franchise in general. 2016 has been a weird year in numerous respects, not the least of which has been its lackluster lineup of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, but as a calendar full of scary-movie surprises, it was a winner. Don’t Breathe is no Witch, but it didn’t have to be to become arguably the sleeper hit of the year. Dive in and enjoy the filth!
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Don’t Breathe is all business, not personal, and at times feels like the hollowed skeleton of a horror epic in an odd but fitting way. Stephen Lang is a beast of a villain here, but at the end of the day is only the most weaponized tool of Fede Alvarez’s aggressive, efficient horror story. Aesthetically speaking, Don’t Breathe is tightly wound, grimly colored, and unsettling on the ears. Snobs will overlook the movie’s directorial execution because of its content, perhaps, but that’s not the movie’s fault.
— However… Don’t Breathe is as meat-and-potatoes as horror comes, and doesn’t have much, if anything, to say beyond what you see and hear on the surface. It ends on a question mark instead of an exclamation point, and may be too raunchy or grindhouse-flavored for some viewers.
—> RECOMMENDED, nonetheless!
? Turkey baster, for the win.