The inspiration for 2016’s low-budget sleeper hit “Don’t Breathe,” according to filmmaker Fede Alvarez, was to make a horror movie with an original storyline that used suspense in place of supernatural elements or excessive blood. In “Don’t Breathe 2,” the similarly deranged sequel, he has stayed true to those maxims, for the most part. There may be fewer truly gory moments in “Don’t Breathe 2” than in typical slasher fare, but they are just twisted enough to stick in the mind like a festering wound.
Once again employing the reverse home invasion tale, one in which the invaders hardly live long enough to wholly regret their choices, “Don’t Breathe 2” is another satisfyingly suspenseful riff on the classic trope. The movie’s grotesque twists may illicit more groans than gasps, but its slight sense of humor betrays a winking self-awareness. Alvarez, along with co-writer and director Rodo Sayagues, proves once again they know what genre lovers want — at least, a certain type of genre lover. Those drawn to genre for its unique ability to hold a lens up to society should look elsewhere. Aside from a vague sketch of fatherhood in crisis and something about war wounds, “Don’t Breathe 2” is long on suspense and short on social critique (the original, at least, tried to speak to issues of “economic anxiety” that aren’t as pronounced here).
The only recurring character in the sequel is Norman Nordstrom, played to grisly grandpa perfection by Broadway veteran Stephen Lang. Not that you’d know his name from watching the movie, he is simply referred to as “the blind man.” Except for the little girl in his charge (Madelyn Grace), who calls him father, and also remains nameless for most of the movie but is later identified as Phoenix. Sporting a shock of white hair, she spends her days training for the danger that Norman is certain will befall her. On a rare trip into town, she encounters a creep in a public bathroom, who reaches out to graze her white locks as she walks breezily past, protective Rottweiler in tow.
Naturally, that’s not the last we see of Raylan (Brendan Sexton III), who follows the little girl home with his gang of knuckleheads in tow. A motley crew, cast and styled in a range from pretty boy Neo-Nazi to menacing bodybuilder types, descends on the house Phoenix and Norman share. Having lured Norman out to look for his missing dog (animal lovers beware), the gang hunts Phoenix, who proves more adept at evasion than they bargained for. The tension-filled search scene that follows is an impressive feat of cinematography and choreography, unfolding in near silence, aside from a few menacing footsteps. As Phoenix dances through the house, narrowly escaping detection, the camera wends down the staircase or into a closet with the same agility.
Once Norman gets hip to the danger that has (once again) come to his home, the punches start landing, revealing the blind man’s brutality is as clever as his abilities require. The first reference to the movie’s title arrives at a choice moment; when one of the invaders finds his comrade’s mouth and nose glued over, he punctures his cheek with a screwdriver and tells him to breathe. Good luck with that.
Despite Norman’s best efforts, Raylan and his crew eventually steal off with Phoenix, a tough task made a smidge easier after crucial information about her past sews mistrust in the old man. The rest is hard to describe without revealing too much, but a foreboding news blast about an organ trafficking ring provides an early tip off of some of what’s to come. The introduction of a new character in the third act adds a jolt of fresh blood, aided by a delightfully unhinged performance from a chirping character actress who could give Jennifer Tilly a run for her money.
But the standout performance here comes from Lang, who imbues the blind man with a reluctant humanity underneath all his veneer of cunning brutality. Even with very little dialogue, Lang manages to fill the character with the dashed hopes and bitter disappointments of a man whose life has not gone as planned. A longtime side player, from “Manhunter” to “Avatar,” Lang’s everyman quality is a boon to the film. Whether for budget reasons or just personal taste, it’s refreshing to see a movie without any recognizable stars for a change. (Rich Delia and Rory Okey’s casting is impeccable all around.)
“Don’t Breathe 2” falls short when it grasps for depth, whether through Raylan bragging about his “dishonorable discharge from a dishonorable war” or Norman’s final brief soliloquy confessing to the vicious things he’s done. His jarring assertion that “I have killed. I have raped. I am a monster” mostly feels injected to stave off complaints that the film humanizes his (admittedly, very bad) character from the first film, but it doesn’t quite jive with the spirit of this sequel. Unlike its predecessor, “Don’t Breathe 2” is thankfully devoid of sexual violence, and while the reminder of Norman’s horrific backstory might feel necessary, it only scans as awkward in what is supposed to be a humanizing moment for the guy we’ve been rooting for all along. Some bad guys can change, it seems, but “Don’t Breathe 2” needs to remember when it’s time to give the real oxygen.
Sony Pictures will release “Don’t Breathe 2” in theaters on August 13.
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