2016 has been a banner year for excellent horror films, which seems at times appropriate, given the horrors of this calendar year – shootings, war, natural disaster, an unprecedented presidential campaign. When it feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket, there’s catharsis to be found in a horror film where the final girl fights off the boogey man.
Add Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” to the canon of instant-classic horror movies of 2016, joining “Green Room,” “Lights Out” and “The Conjuring 2.” Like “Lights Out,” “Don’t Breathe” revolves around an ingenious concept – a team of teen burglars rob the house of a blind man who isn’t so helpless – and like “Green Room,” it taps into devastatingly contemporary cultural undercurrents. The teen burglars live in the wasteland of a downtrodden Detroit; home invasion burglary seems like the only way out for these lower-middle class white kids.
The trio is driven by their lack of options, and as have-nots, feel somewhat justified in stealing from the haves. But there are larger motivations at stake. Rocky (Jane Levy) is desperate for an escape from her abusive mother’s house for herself and her sister. She’s backed up by her thugged-out wildcard boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and her friend Alex (Dylan Minette), the brains of the operation, who harbors a crush on the unavailable Rocky.
It’s not long before they’re tipped off to a Gulf War vet (Steven Lang), sitting on a large cash settlement from his daughter’s wrongful death, hit by a teen driver. It’s only after they’ve set their sights on him that they discover the man is blind, but still proceed with the burglary. They’ve grossly underestimated their target, both in his physical capabilities and in his desire for retribution.
Alvarez and writer Rodo Sayagues have devised some incredibly suspenseful set pieces around the man’s blindness, which the teens attempt to exploit in order to escape the house and make off with the dough. But he’s battened down the hatches on his dark, crumbling home, knows every floorboard creak and is unwilling to part with his goods – or let any deed go unpunished. Alvarez masterfully utilizes silence and sound throughout, re-creating the sensory experience of the man.
The audience is privy to all the close brushes in tight hallways and stifled screams as the invaders attempt to hide in plain sight. We see the dilated pupils of our protagonists, bumbling sightless in a pitch black basement, the playing field leveled to their captor. The tension never lets up, and the shocking twists in the story need to be seen to be believed.
There aren’t any “good guys” in “Don’t Breathe,” as victimizers become victims and back again. We align ourselves with Rocky and Alex, fighting for their lives, but there’s some empathy for the blind man, a disabled vet protecting his home and the dark secrets it contains.
While the sight-based conceit offers the opportunity for clever suspense and scares, it’s the starkly realistic setting and all too newsworthy themes underpinning the spooky tale that makes the horror of this film so bone-chilling. “Don’t Breathe” is terrifying because it doesn’t rely on the supernatural or fantasy. These horrors are all too real and all too plausible, stories that we see on the news all too regularly – grown right here in the USA.
Rated: R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references. Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minette, Stephen Lang. Director: Fede Alvarez. Running time: 88 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.