Fede Alvarez had directed several short films in the past, but none had the same impact that Ataque de Pánico! had when he released it online back in 2009. By luck of circumstance, or fate perhaps, this short film caught the attention of Sam Raimi, the creator of blockbuster hits like the Spider-Man trilogy and Drag Me to Hell. This quickly led to a deal between Raimi’s production company Ghost House Pictures that would allow this new director to handle an ambitious 30-40-million-dollar studio film. The first fruit of this arrangement would be a reboot of Raimi’s certified cult-classic, The Evil Dead.
With that film Alvarez took a different approach and crafted an intense horror experience that prided itself in its twisted madness and gloriously gory practical effects. With Don’t Breathe, his long-awaited follow-up, Fede Alvarez has shown his directorial confidence has not wavered in the slightest. Don’t Breathe is an excellent exercise in psychological terror and relentless tension, one that’s not afraid to bear its teeth and get a little bit nasty when necessary.
We’re introduced to three young delinquents in Detroit who specialize in breaking into homes and selling whatever items they’re able to snatch up. They stumble upon a new target that is rumored to have a large stash of cash from a court settlement that would allow them to leave this murky business behind and leave behind their less than adequate living situations. When they realize the man who they are going to rob is blind, it seems too good to be true.
They go through with their plan, but what they find in the blind man’s home is not what they expected – and the blind man not as helpless as he seems. Now stuck in this unpredictable house with its resident hunting for them as the situation spirals out of control, the kids realize that they may not make it out of there alive.
As a follow up to Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe is the flip side of the same coin. Instead of relying purely on intuitive carnage, the film goes straight to the head and plays with the threat of violence, rather than the relentless onslaught of said vehemence. The body count is low and the bloodshed minimal, but the suspense is nearly overwhelming.
Don’t Breathe is proof of Fede Alvarez’s ability to show restraint and let the suspense do the talking. The unknown threat and mystery of the unknown as more information about this situation is trickled out to the audience will always be scarier than inevitable violence, and Alvarez shows here that he has known that from the very beginning. He’s now proven that he has a handle on different aspects of horror film-making and that he is a directorial force to be reckoned with.
The film’s only true negative is that characterizations are merely adequate. There are genuine moments of development that are affecting, but that is mainly due to the very capable young cast, notably Evil Dead’s leading lady Jane Levey working with Alvarez once again, and the completely volatile antagonist, played to chilling perfection by Avatar’s Stephen Lang. There’s just enough substance here to care for the protagonists and worry about their fates. There are some nasty developments that push boundaries in an off putting but satisfying way that gives a film an edge that cannot be shaken.
In this way, the boldness that Fede Alvarez showcased in Evil Dead does come through in Don’t Breathe, but in a more nuanced fashion that adds to the anxiety and dread that drench the third act of the film. It’s a riveting and shocking series of events that I dare not spoil. Though It becomes rather long winded toward the finale, this relentlessness gives the film a gnarly power as it leads the audience into the anxious headspace of the hapless protagonists, who simply cannot catch a break.
Don’t Breathe is a complete success for director Fede Alvarez. It’s economically made and meticulously paced, allowing the suspense and terror to develop naturally and allows the actors to become enveloped in it in the most convincing and satisfying way. This is the work of a masterful new directorial talent that continues to prove himself and I can’t help but, ahem, hold my breath until we see what comes from his promising career next.