Of all of the nasty, disgusting things that happened in the 2013 remake of “Evil Dead,” the only thing that ever bothered me came in the form of Jane Levy’s Mia getting nicked in the knee by a machete. Growing up, I have had a few problems with my knees, my left knee in particular. Having started later in 10th grade, I had issues with my left knee cap popping out of place, with it fully dislocating on two occasions in 10th grade and 12th grade, making my sympathy and pain felt during this scene even stronger. Girl cutting her own arm off with an electric knife? I’m good. Man removing a needle from deep inside his eyeball? Simple. Girl getting nicked in the knee by a machete? I will scream every time. But this is what director Fede Alvarez does well, he can assault you with one extremity after another, which keeps you engaged, but he will no doubt find what makes you squirm and scream in pain.
But his new film, “Don’t Breathe,” does something even better.
Unlike “Evil Dead,” which is by all means a fantastic film, “Don’t Breathe” takes another horror trope and aggressively rides it: tension. While “Evil Dead” assaulted audiences with gallons of blood, “Don’t Breathe” assaults the audience with what it hates most: silence. The beauty of the film comes in that like “Evil Dead,” the film finds something that makes you squirm or jump in its silence.
Rocky (Jane Levy) is a young woman who dreams of escaping Detroit and her abusive mother with her little sister. To get this money, she robs houses with her deadbeat boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto) and her naïve friend, Alex (Dylan Minnette), who provides the group with the house keys of those they rob from his father’s home security company; Alex also has a big crush on Rocky. When Money discovers that a local blind man (Stephen Lang) might be sitting on over $300,000 from a lawsuit settlement, they agree to rob the house. Upon entering, things seem to be going to plan, until the blind man awakens and what he unleashes upon the teenagers is more horrifying than anything they could’ve ever imagined.
Reuniting with Alvarez from “Evil Dead,” Levy proves that she’s an actress to watch out for. She always brings forth a sense of legitimacy to the genre that often goes overlooked in exchange for sexy, busty blondes with no acting chops whatsoever. Levy is an expressive, game and incredibly likable lead that consistently has brought an emotional heft, as well as sympathy to characters that might not seem sympathetic at first. Levy might just be a new scream queen for this generation. Minnette, in his first horror film, also does good work. After seeing “Goosebumps,” I thought he could pull off doing a full fledged horror film and I was incredibly pleased to see him do well here. Like Levy, Minnette is an incredibly expressive actor that brings a lot more emotional heft to the film that we wouldn’t have if the role had been given to any random pretty boy.
It’s Stephen Lang that brings the biggest presence to the film though. Lang, known for his good work as a villain, does an incredible job bringing forth an intimidating energy simply from his presence. The concept of a blind man being the one calling the shots is an incredibly refreshing take on film in general, giving the spotlight to people with disabilities that are often so overlooked in Hollywood. Does Lang’s character do things that seem pretty unlikely for a blind man to accomplish? Of course, he’s a horror villain, they all have powers we can’t justify, but that brings this classic sense of Jason Voorhees-ish presence to the film that’s palpable.
Alvarez has pulled a 180 with “Don’t Breathe,” showing that he is just as capable of handling tension in a horror film as he is handling extreme gore as in “Evil Dead.” I was afraid that his work on “Evil Dead” only came as beginner’s luck, but that seems not to be the case. While the film had a strong opening, I knew I was watching a great horror film during sequence set entirely in the dark, the way he manipulated his actors in the dark was an incredibly inventive way of shaping horror in his own image. This sequence set in the basement is worth the price of admission alone. As much as you can say about modern films and their flaws, the horror genre is bringing out a new breed of fantastic filmmakers to the forefront, from Alvarez, to David Robert Mitchell, to Robert Eggers, to James Wan and the many others, the horror genre is experiencing a renaissance that I’m so excited to see the culmination of.
At 88 minutes, “Don’t Breathe” feels like an endeavor that lasts forever, which is a compliment, I promise. Unlike a lot of horror films, “Don’t Breathe” feels like an experience. You’re not sitting down simply to watch a scary movie, you’re here for an endurance test. The film doesn’t waste any time in the start and plunges you directly into the action of the film, not letting up until the final frame of the film. Alvarez lends no down time in any of his films for character reprieves or quiet moments, when he starts a film, he starts it and never stops.
Simply put, “Don’t Breathe” is the tensest film of 2016 so far. It’s a simple, yet incredibly clever, nuanced, but entirely steamrolling horror film that is just as much of a blood pressure test as it is a film. Yet, despite it being a straight horror film, it finds its footing in its wonderful cast and fabulously craft direction from Alvarez, one of my newest favorite directors in Hollywood. I’m hoping Alvarez sticks with horror, rather than jumping onto the first blockbuster offer that’s thrown at him *cough*James Wan*cough*. Lang’s Blind Man is one of the more genuinely frightening antagonists in recent memory, with a raw and terrifying energy that only something this rooted in reality can bring. If anything, “Don’t Breathe” and its grounded nature in realistic horror is what drives it home the most. It might not be a situation that we’ll ever be involved in, but it’s something that definitely could happen, which might be all the more horrifying.
Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, and Stephen Lang.
Runtime: 88 minutes
Rating: R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references.
Screen Gems, Stage 6 Films, in association with Ghost House Pictures present, a film by Fede Alvarez, “Don’t Breathe”