In 2013, Fede Alvarez made his initial foray into feature-length filmmaking with an update/reboot of Sam Raimi’s classic EVIL DEAD franchise – undoubtedly one of the more watchable genre remakes in recent memory, with plenty of sweet style on display and a strong performance from lead actress Jane Levy, which nonetheless suffered from tonal inconsistencies that threatened to sink the entire effort and its modest achievements. Three years after the fact Alvarez returns with DON’T BREATHE, an efficient, nasty little number that shows honest artistic growth whilst expanding upon an already above-competent visual language – a real treat for unabashed purveyors of provocation.
Levy co-stars as one of three 20-something crooks who plan to rob an elderly man’s house in an otherwise abandoned neighborhood, hoping to secure the funds which will allow them to escape to California. They find that they are at an advantage; though the victim has military history, he is also blind as a bat, and a security camera planted at the site beforehand reveals that he very rarely steps outside.
They strike at night, and things seem to be going according to plan until the unexpected happens: the old man wakes up. Predictably, he isn’t too happy when he discovers the home invasion in process. And where one sense diminishes, the other increases (to quote Lester Corncrake of THE MIGHTY BOOSH). The old man soon proves himself to be more than capable of holding his own against his assailants, and what ensues is a gut-wrenching game of cat-and-mouse in which the name of the game is silence.
If EVIL DEAD was Alvarez getting his foot in the door, DON’T BREATHE is his golden opportunity to prove himself as a force to be reckoned with, taking a familiar premise and manipulating it, like a true craftsman, to his likeness. Single-location thrillers can be tricky, but through evocative lighting, appropriately suffocating sound design and plenty of sheer technical alchemy, he is able to make the blind man’s home feel like its own world. Around every corner, behind every door and within every closet, there seem to be dark secrets, all of which culminate in a twisted finale that feels more like release than revelation.
In the end, the viewer feels as if Alvarez has played them like a violin, but the feeling is one of great satisfaction. Though it would be interesting to see him work with a more ambitious script in his future endeavors – there are attempts at deeper emotional resonance that feel shoehorned in more than anything – the film nevertheless solidifies its director as one of the (horror/thriller) genre’s most valuable contemporary players. If you know what you’re getting into, and you should, it’s a delightfully demented ride of a variety which American cinema, on a whole, is sorely lacking more of. It may prove to be a bit on the sleazy side for some, but sometimes wallowing in the filth is precisely what keeps us on our toes