A director who burst onto the horror scene with 2013’s gory remake of “The Evil Dead,” Fede Alvarez tightens his claustrophobic approach with “Don’t Breathe,” a thriller-horror hybrid unveiled at SXSW under near complete secrecy. It turns out a brutal, Blumhouse-produced tweak of 1967’s “Wait Until Dark” lies in store, replacing Audrey Hepburn with a blind Gulf War vet (Stephen Lang) armed with sadistic methods, who faces off against a trio of amateur criminals out to loot his home. The idea’s a clever cat-and-mouse reversal toying with audience sympathies from scene to scene, but Alvarez’s visual flair and handle on tone can only mask his paper-thin characters and motivations for so long.
Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” star, Jane Levy, heads up the cast as Rocky, who dreams of escaping Detroit to California with her little sister, rather than staying and enduring abuse from their deadbeat mother. Rocky’s boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto, all cornrows and hokey “street” tics) is eager to join them, but first the couple must fund the trip through petty crime — namely, knocking over houses in the affluent Detroit suburbs. That’s where Alex (Dylan Minnette) enters the picture: a quiet kid whose obvious affection for Rocky keeps him close by, he steals house keys from his father’s security company to gain access to their targets.
Alvarez sprints through these opening scenes, economically setting up each character and their goals before throwing them into the drama. Levy particularly sells her struggle, mostly because she’s an enigmatic actress who’s interesting to watch. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues try their best to deflate her efforts though, asking her to sell a monologue about how a ladybug represents isolation and escape. Meanwhile Minette and Zovatto fare even worse, left on their own to dimly brood about unrequited love or one last financial windfall. Luckily, the latter frustration is seemingly solved after an outside tip mentions a six-figure settlement hiding with a blind shut-in living nearby. But when the trio shows up to the man’s house they find every window barred and the front door boasting four locks – early signs that something’s amiss.
As in “Evil Dead” and the famous cabin at his disposal, Alvarez tackles every corner of the vet’s two-story house with a horror fan’s interest and technical polish. This comes through especially in the eventual break-in, captured in bravura one take as the camera glides past genre set-ups: a rack of power tools here, a shard of glass on the floor there — all foreshadows of their possible use to come. When the group does finally encounter the blind vet (in an imposingly physical and excellent performance by Lang), the first of many prolonged silences emerge.
Where “Evil Dead” ramped up into a cacophony of chainsaws and screams, here Alvarez swings his approach in the opposite direction. He drops out the sound entirely at points, as Levy, Minnette, and Zovatto edge around a probing Lang, until a Foley effect crashes in and gives their positions away. Through his own instincts and likely some key “quiet…quiet…bang!” advice from producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert, Alvarez knows how to build early tension visually and aurally: just witness a standout sequence that shuts the lights off, allowing “Silent House” DP Pedro Luque to shoot characters in inky night vision, their pupils an empty black dot, while composer Roque Baños’ intense score rumbles in the background.
This is well crafted stuff, but similar to another expert at gore-filled tension, Alexandre Aja, the film falls down when dealing with tonal shifts and moral boundaries. Aside from Levy, the cast are cardboard cutouts too dull to care whether they live or die – a problem when there are so few ideas outside of that question. Well, that’s not entirely true: the film’s third act introduces an aberrant, psychosexual element that is frankly misjudged, trying to riff on “Killer Joe” with a turkey baster but never reaching those operatic heights. Lang, ever committed, tries his best to sell the act as existing in some version of reality, but Alvarez betrays him by favoring cheap shocks over earned surprise.
Alvarez was right to unveil his second film to audiences with next to zero upfront details, as it will face major challenges on its way to release. Show too much of the shocking avenues it turns down in the marketing, and ruin the film entirely. Reveal just the routine genre setup, and it looks like it’s going nowhere special. Successful in pulling off several fantastically tense set pieces, aided immensely by Levy and Lang, “Don’t Breathe” indeed reaches a unique destination in horror filmmaking. Unfortunately it fails to deliver a worthy emotional hook to pin its savagery onto and thus can’t rise beyond just a well-crafted, but ultimately hollow genre exercise. [C+]