The formula for the home invasion thriller has fueled countless eerie showdowns, but Fede Alvarez's "Don't Breathe" is an especially dazzling example. The director's sophomore effort, following his 2013 "Evil Dead" remake, finds a trio of reckless teens attempting to rob a blind man and inadvertently wind up trapped in his lair for the night. Equal parts "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "High Tension," this elegant and surprisingly fast-paced blend of horror and suspense overcomes some of its more ridiculous ingredients thanks to endless invention. Alvarez makes the terror of locked doors and dark rooms more unsettling than the terrible things they entail.
While the director's grisly "Evil Dead" remix was primarily a springboard for gory showdowns, "Don't Breathe" funnels that sensibility toward more innovative ends. Early scenes establish the antics of Detroit teens Rocky (Jane Levy), a young mother, thuggish Money (Dylan Minette) and fresh-faced Alex (Daniel Zovatto), whose success at plundering affluent homes encourages further ambition. Pinpointing a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang, "Avatar") who keeps his wealth from a legal settlement on lockdown, they assume he's another easy target. Instead, they find themselves at the mercy of a gun-toting, muscular killer who knows the inner workings of his home better than they do. With no real innocent protagonist to orient the story's moral compass, anyone could bite the bullet.
From this basic setup, "Don't Breathe" settles into a relentless series of unsettling showdowns, primarily based around a single enticing premise: Time and again, the invaders find themselves inches away from being detected by the unseeing resident as he chases them from room to room and their prospects of escape keep dwindling. Co-written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, the movie trades dialogue for frightened reaction shots as the robbers suppress their screams. Darting from one room to the next, their conundrum borders on slapstick as each new environment presents a different physical challenge: hiding in closets, dashing through narrow crawlspaces, huddling in a locked basement and dodging an unstoppable Rottweiler, they can't get a break. Production designer Naaman Marshall turns the house into a murky labyrinth brimming with new ways of confining its ill-fated characters. Pedro Luque's shadowy cinematography creates the possibility of danger lurking at every corner, while the layered sound design leaves the characters at the mercy of every abrupt noise — from a single creaky floorboard to the wayward shard of shattered glass.
Ultimately, their biggest foe is the one they underestimated from the outset. "It's kind of fucked up to rob a blind guy," Alex asserts, but that's only the half of it. Lang's stocky build and blind stare make for an appealing movie monster whose every movement is a calculated attack. "Don't Breathe" falls short of making his motives as appealing as his instincts, a problem that plagues the rest of the cast as well. Alvarez is so committed to maintaining the rapid pace that he barely gives much depth to any of his characters. However, the movie's so eager to please that it hardly matters, particularly when it reaches for grotesque extremes, including one gnarly twist involving semen in a turkey baster. Though the minuscule plot never reaches the heights of the Rube Goldberg-like mayhem, it hardly gets in the way of the thrills.
Alvarez's claustrophobic setting works so effectively that any scenes taking place outside the walls of the house create the instant feeling of relief. But the eerie finale suggests that escaping from one enclosure only leads to confinement in a larger one. The ending leaves room for a sequel, but it's not just a half-baked teaser. As with all strong horror stories, the conclusion of one dangerous scenario feeds the fear of more to come.