In more than a few ways, Don’t Breathe is a pretty dumb movie. Thankfully, it’s also a terrifically well-made one in several different aspects. A sweaty-palmed mix of a horror and suspense from the guy who gave you the surprisingly decent (and decidedly blood-soaked) Evil Dead remake. Fede Alvarez flips the classic Wait Until Dark set up for a movie about a gang of lovable home invaders attacked by a dangerously psychotic blind man. Sure, nitpick film critics will have a field day poking all the holes in the silly screenplay. In the meantime, everyone else will be too wrapped up jumping and screaming at the spectacular set pieces to even consider the stupidity until long after the credits roll. I suppose it could be described as a guilty pleasure, but those pleasures are too satisfying to complain about the guilt.
Dylan Minnette stars in Don't Breathe as a nice guy in impoverished Detroit. He takes advantage of his father’s home security gig to do a little night time robbery as a side job. His partners in crime are Jane Levy as his not-so-secret crush from a broken home and Daniel Zovatto as her jerk, wannabe thug boyfriend. Their business has been booming for a while, so they decide to target a house that they’ve heard contains quite a bit of cash. It’s owned by a blind man with a vicious dog, so they feel a bit worried and guilty about the gig. Not enough to stop them, though, so they push forward with the plan. Everything seems to be going to plan until the blind man (a sinister Stephen Lang, best known as the baddie from Avatar) wakes up and proves that his army training/psychosis easily trumps his disability. Next thing you know, it’s a series of intense set pieces as the kids try to make it out of the house with their lives by, in the words of Elmer Fudd, being very, very quiet.
After carefully setting the scene through the type of impossible CGI tracking shots that James Wan used in The Conjuring, Fede Alvarez starts ratcheting up the tension and doesn’t let go until the credits roll. It’s takes about fifteen minutes for the scene to be set, but from there Don’t Breathe is pure storytelling through set pieces. There’s no letting up, letting the director’s inventiveness take hold. All the tricks are used, though gore is kept relatively minimal compared to the filmmaker’s debut. That said, there’s one sequence that may not be gory, but… ew. Good luck scrubbing it from your memory. All told, though, it’s a pretty impressive thrill ride that should make audiences loud and rowdy in the best possible sense.
Performances are all rather strong for this sort of thing. The trio of lead kids keep things grounded in the midst of all their scare scenes. Stephen Lang delivers a pretty damn effective monster through a predominantly silent performance. In fact, it’s amazing how much of the movie plays purely from its visuals. So much of the running time is dedicated to technique and shock that there’s no need for words. Scenes shot in the dark are visualized through a clever mix of black and white and nightvision photography that clearly has the actors fumbling around in the shadows. Now, it has to be said that in order to keep this terror train running, Alvarez’s screenplay takes some pretty big liberties with logic and continuity. There are some dumb-dumb plotting choices and questionable twists that’ll have Cinema Sins-adoring viewers crying foul.
The thing is, it gets away with its idiocy because all of those logic liberties slip in as part of the filmmaker’s scare first approach. It almost plays like surrealism (if accidentally) and ultimately the silliness is all worth it. Don’t Breathe is relentless and despite frequent dabblings into bad taste, playing like a million dollar carnival spook house. You’ll jump, you’ll squeal, your butthole will tense shut, and then on the way home you’ll laugh about the fact that you fell for it all. What more could you want from a summertime scarefest? Now is not the movie season for intelligence and subtlety. It’s all about the visceral reactions and this movie delivers more than enough of those to qualify as a success.