In promoting his 2009 horror film Drag Me to Hell, director Sam Raimi coined the term “Spook-A-Blast”, which was meant to convey a specific kind of thrill-ride where scary things happened but with a comic buffer. So, for example, a creepy old woman might pop out and scare you, but then an anvil will fall on her head and her eyes will pop out of her skull. It’s a blending of the comical with the horrific that Sam Raimi’s really been doing all the way back since Evil Dead II, and it’s a look that works for him.
Director Fede Alvarez, who remade Raimi’s Evil Dead in 2013, tries to pick up the spook-a-blast mantle with his latest film, Don’t Breathe. However, while Raimi embraces the supernatural and the cartoonish to blunt the edge of his horror trappings, Alvarez prefers to keep hammering away at his characters and pushing the envelope to where a silly movie eventually becomes a gross one. There’s nothing wrong with crafting a thrill ride, but Alvarez’ Don’t Breathe eventually goes off the rails as it veers from the exhilarating to the revolting.
Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are burglars in Detroit. The cautious Alex uses his Dad’s credentials at a home security company to help them break in, but also wants them to keep their robberies beneath $10,000 so they aren’t committing felonies. The impatient Money hears about a bigger score, and Rocky gets on board because she needs the money so she can take her sister away from their abusive mother. Alex, who has a crush on Rocky, reluctantly agrees to go along with Money’s plan. When they discover that their mark (Stephen Lang), a former soldier, is also a blind man, they think that it will be an easy score. However, during the break-in, they’re discovered, the Blind Man (we never learn his name) kills Money, and it’s up to Rocky and Alex to get out alive.
On the surface, it seems like Don’t Breathe would be a perfect premise for a suspense film. You have a situation where silence would seem to be at a premium when the antagonist has heightened sense of hearing. And yet in Alvarez’ hands, he’s not particularly interested in building suspense. He expertly uses sound to his advantage, but the director is more concerned in getting your adrenaline flowing and your blood pumping. He loves the thrill of the chase, and he’s essentially crafted a monster movie with the Blind Man as the monster and the hapless burglars as his prey.
The script also doesn’t have a lot of room for nuance. Even if the trailers hadn’t given it away, Money is such a raging asshole that you know he’s going to die, and Rocky and Alex are the good kids doing a bad thing. When the Blind Man enters the picture, the more we learn about him, the worse he becomes until he’s not just a man trying to protect his home; he’s a total sociopath. This is a film that could have easily provided shading to all of its characters, but that would have gotten in the way of the monster movie Alvarez is bent on creating.
And for a monster movie, it’s fine. It’s a very silly film that if you see it, you should see it with a rowdy audience that will enjoy the mad scramble Rocky and Alex make for their lives against a blind man who shoots a gun in their general direction. Don’t Breathe is perfectly enjoyable for what it is until Alvarez brings in a plot twist that makes the film totally gross in more ways than one. I won’t spoil what happens, but you’ll know the scene when you see it, and it highlights why Alvarez isn’t quite as deft as Raimi at blending the horrific with the comedic.
Between Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe, Alvarez is a filmmaker who seems to pride himself on going further than his peers. If the MPAA were a sensible organization, Evil Dead would have easily been rated NC-17 for violence, but they got away with it because the violence is “supernatural” (although there’s nothing supernatural about someone sawing off their own arm with a carving knife). For Don’t Breathe, it wasn’t enough that two characters are trying to survive against someone trying to kill them. The kids have to be saints, the killer has to be a psychopath, and then Alvarez takes it to a level where we’re not having fun anymore; we’re just sickened.