Horror films, especially slashers, have always a tendency, or even a requirement, of being myopic and focused – which can either be their charm or their downfall. Horror sequels, on the other hand, often have a difficult time figuring out a way to further that myopic story, giving us a preponderance of failures so large that “bad horror sequels” have become a subgenre all of their own. The best sequels, however, have justified their existence by retaining the aesthetic charms of the first while bringing us a fresh new story and taking bold risks.
From The Bride of Frankenstein to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors to this year’s A Quiet Place 2, the list is small. Don’t Breathe 2, the follow-up to the deceptively simple 2016 original about a trio of teenage home invaders who break into a blind man’s house for an easy score yet find themselves as victims in a slasher, deserves a seat at the table.
What makes Don’t Breathe 2 so impressive is how it deviates almost entirely from its predecessor yet still finds a way to subvert audience expectations almost as much. The first film mined an incredibly unique dichotomy between its heroes and villain, where the home invaders are the protagonists and the plot twists will have you struggling to reconcile with which side you’re rooting for, sending your sympathy on a well-guided odyssey to the thrilling finale.
Ultimately though, aka the blind man, played by Stephen Lang, ends up being the bad guy, which is why making him the hero in the sequel is brave and almost dangerous when you consider his story up to this point. Now, some years later, we find the blind man, i.e. Norman, living with his 11-year-old daughter, Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), following a fire that took the life of her birth mother.
Norman keeps his daughter under a pretty strict lockdown as he schools her from home. One day, their adult friend Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila) convinces him to let Phoenix spend the day with her. It’s there that the young girl meets a strange man (Brendan Sexton III) who accosts her in the women’s room, nearly preventing her from making it back to the car. Late that night after returning home, Norman and Phoenix are paid a visit by this man and his lackeys.
It takes almost 30 minutes before we’re able to decide if this is a prequel or sequel, with certain details early on seeming to contradict those of the previous film. We previously learned that Norman had a daughter who died, sending him down the dark path we observe the outcome of. Before we start to question why a kidnapper and rapist would now be somebody we’re expected to root for, screenwriting duo Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues (also directing) once again provide us with more layers of good and bad.
It’s almost like they wanted to see what would happen if, instead of throwing Emperor Palpatine down a reactor shaft to his death, Darth Vader spends an hour of Return of the Jedi hunting him down after finding out that Luke was being tortured with Force lightning. In fact, Norman’s arc over the two Don’t Breathe films shares a few uncanny similarities to Vader’s in the original Star Wars trilogy (with Lang’s hoarse rasp and burned skin only adding to the resemblance); it’s less about his vindication but taking the first steps to atonement.
Lang gets a chance here to really spread his wings as he elaborates on his intriguing character, seeming to be burdened by Norman’s past himself, delivering in a way that never expects us to feel sorry for him or questioning his level of remorse, if any. For Norman, there’s only one person that needs to hear his contrition. Without Phoenix, it might be impossible to root for Norman. But if it means protecting her, then we, along with her, must choose the lesser of two evils. Her role is that of the audience in the last film.
In a strange way, Lang’s performance almost isn’t directed toward the viewer at all, but for Phoenix. The young Grace is endlessly captivating in her feature film debut where she never once resorts to precocity, instead acts exactly how an 11-year-old would in this bizarre circumstance, with a quietly begrudging acceptance of her abnormal life and a subtle earnest glow behind her eyes that never requires her curiosity to be emoted.
Behind the camera, Sayagues, who replaces Álvarez in the director’s seat, benefits from the same dynamic camerawork from returning DP Pedro Luque, but also doesn’t ask him to do quite as much. Trading in the dilapidated house for an industrial meth lab, the director tries to imitate the spatial awareness of his predecessor, but partially struggles to find his own artistic thumbprint in the process.
While his visual storytelling is exceptional when it comes to utilizing the words on the page in a way that only a writer-director can truly do, there is much less artistry when trying to set up the “Chekhov’s guns” sprinkled throughout the sets. Where Álvarez hosted elaborate one-shots that took the time to explore his environment, Sayagues simply cuts to a pitchfork or a shovel with no context just prior to somebody getting slain by the given weapon. It’s a different approach, to be sure, but one that’s still effective.
Despite its more sprawling story, Don’t Breathe 2 is still just as tight as the first film, albeit with much more breathing. It’s almost pointless to compare the two – their relationship to each other only serving to provide for deeper analysis without stepping on each other’s toes. If you can stick this one out past the halfway mark, viewing the story through the eyes of Phoenix rather than the proverbial ones of the blind man, then you should find the uncompromisingly bonkers plot to be among the more original and audacious put to film.