Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #614
Number of Views: One
Release Date: August 26, 2016
Sub-Genre: Survival Horror
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 88 minutes
Director: Fede Alvarez
Producers: Fede Alvarez, Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert
Screenplay: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues
Special Effects: Gabor Kiszelly, Anna Kießer
Visual Effects: Alejandro Damiani
Cinematography: Pedro Luque
Score: Roque Baños
Editing: Eric L. Beason, Louise Ford, Gardner Gould
Studio: Ghost House Pictures
Distributors: Screen Gems, Stage 6 Films
Stars: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang, Franciska Törőcsik, Emma Bercovici, Christian Zagia, Katia Bokor, Sergej Onopko
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Roque Baños “Don’t Breathe”
 Roque Baños “Oceans of Time”
When young Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Álvarez unleashed his all singing and dancing Evil Dead reboot on us in 2013, it’s fair to say that the purists among us harbored some pretty severe doubts as to whether he had bitten off more than he could chew. Such an iconic movie was surely impossible to recreate with anything like the same degree of ingenuity, considering the original was effectively a labor of love from a group of college buddies who just happened to lay their hands on a few bucks and a 16mm camera. With a $17 million budget at his disposal (not bad for a first time director), it appeared that much of its lo-fi charm would become lost in translation. However, Álvarez played it smart by paying his respects while not attempting to spoon-feed his audience more of the same. As a huge fan of Sam Raimi’s original, I was more than just vaguely impressed.
Astonishingly, he still ended up coming under fire from certain quarters, with some claiming it was too bloody or bemoaning it being a remake. Thus Álvarez resisted the urge to follow-up with a big-budget number, focusing instead on a far more intimate tale, one that relied on suspense to make its impact as opposed to OTT shock tactics. Thrashed out by Álvarez himself and co-writer Rodo Sayagues, Don’t Breathe is effectively a home invasion movie, although it’s more a case of the rogues of the piece attempting to get out rather than in. Those expecting a kitchen sink approach may be disappointed by the restraint he shows, but everyone else should be in for something of a treat. Indeed, over $150 million in box-office receipts against a modest $10 million budget is a rather extraordinary pay-off, proving him more than astute in the process.
Our story centres on a trio of petty criminals from Detroit; Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto), whose income comes from breaking into luxurious houses under the jurisdiction of Alex’s father’s home security company and moving on any goods they acquire. The allure of those green sheets is strong with all of them, but Rocky’s reasoning for a life of crime is perhaps the most honorable.
She is desperate to move her little sister away from her neglectful mother and her drunk boyfriend and relocate to California, so when Money receives a tip about a retired army veteran living in an old rundown urban wasteland and sitting on a cool $300k, she’s powerless not to cut herself a slice of this potentially lucrative pie.
They’re an unconventional bunch for sure. Money is more of your straight up gangsta type, all white chocolate braids and street swagger, whereas Alex looks suspiciously like the kid in school who spent all his recesses attempting to remove the cloth of his jockeys from his asshole and its his geeky tech knowledge that makes him indispensable to the group. They decide it would be wise to stakeout the building in advance and the intelligence is encouraging, if not altogether dignifying.
You see, the old coot (Stephen Lang) just so happens to be as blind as a blinkered bat and therefore something of an easy target by all accounts. Nevertheless, a job is a job and, when over a quarter of a million dollars is at stake, not one to be sniffed at. After drugging his dog, they locate a small entrance window just large enough for Rocky to wriggle through and let the others in for a good old-fashioned sneak and grab. If only money were that easy.
While at a distinct disadvantage through his lack of sight, Norman Nordstrom certainly isn’t your average helpless senior citizen. Neither is he exactly kosher himself, as testified by the young woman bound and gagged in his storm cellar (Franciska Törőcsik). Even more disconcertingly, he is very much aware of their presence and keen to use the other four heightened senses to see that they come to his own unique brand of justice. The more they learn about Nordstrom’s residence, the more they realize how fucked they are, as he runs a tight ship and has every intention of forcing each of them to walk the plank.
With only three main protagonists at our disposal, you would be forgiven for having concerns about how Don’t Breathe could possibly luxuriate its lean 88 minute running time, particularly given that we are barely ten minutes in when house arrest is facilitated. However, this is where Álvarez’s decision becomes more than vindicated as he finds a way of attaching those thumb screws early doors and spends the duration tightening them at will. As Norman’s nose is far from clean, he cannot risk letting them get away scot-free and, thanks to the steel enforcer he’s wielding, alarming accuracy skills, and a general air of the formidable, that becomes less of an option for them with every excruciating second that ebbs away.
So about that mutt then or perhaps rabid Rottweiler from the very depths of hell would be more accurate. Norman may be 100% unsighted but there ain’t nothing stopping him yelling “sick balls” while holding out his palm expectantly and this particular four-legged fiend provides its owner the 20-20 vision he is missing. The house itself is also a character, with the director employing steadicam brilliantly to keep its targets in sight, revealing any potential weapons as a gentle indicator that we’ll be getting up close with them at a later point. Just like Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs, the layout of the building is far more intricate than is first suggested, although laughs are far thinner on the ground within these four walls, particularly when you’re trying to evade Pistol Pete and his rancid mongrel.
Levy’s big bright eyes lend themselves beautifully to expressing abject horror and it is easy to see why Álvarez kept faith in her after her spirited lead turn in Evil Dead. Much of her time is spent covering her mouth as she is introduced to yet another reason not to be cheerful, but Rocky ain’t no shrinking violet, and there’s more than enough steel beneath those baby blues to convince the audience she’s worth rooting for. She is assisted ably by Minnette who has no choice but to find his testicles and also isn’t likely to throw in the towel without first dying trying.
However, the real house daddy here is silver chinned hate-tornado Lang, predatory while still just vulnerable enough to have us questioning where our allegiances should lie, he soon snuffs out such curiosity by reminding us all what a lurching menace he truly is. At one point, he has the smarts to cut all lights in the basement and, while we get to view the scene in night-vision, his prey then have to deal with being the ones shuffling cautiously with their feelers on alert as they fumble their way through dense jumble.
Don’t Breathe isn’t the first reverse-the-threat home invasion movie to emerge in recent times as Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo’s Livid did a none too shabby job of pitting three thugs in a similarly huckery situation back in 2011, albeit with a more supernatural flavor. However, it’s a better film overall and, while some may argue that the final third offers a little too much spelling out of motivation, it doesn’t detract from what is a tense rattlesnake of a survival horror flick and one only too willing to steal away your last few labored puffs. With old man Nordstrom on doorman duties, I’m just glad I never became a Jehovah’s witness.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: In the kind of shrewd move that can make a modern legend out of a man, Álvarez proves that you don’t need flaying limbs and red-eyed rage demons to get your audience’s stomachs turning – a suspension harness and pipette full of old man spunk is all it takes. Nevertheless, there is plenty of violence on exhibit and, while never gratuitous, you’d better get use to those kidney punches as they’re delivered at around ten-minute intervals and will leave a stain.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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