Fede Alvarez's 'Don't Breathe' Is An Edge Of Your Seat, Fright-Filled Thrill Ride

By James Jay Edwards
Released: August 26, 2016
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A trio of friends break into the house of a wealthy blind man, thinking they'll get away with the perfect heist. They're wrong.

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Film Review
A few years back, writer/director Fede Alvarez took on the unenviable task of remaking Sam Raimi's legendary cult classic The Evil Dead. He knocked it out of the park; Alvarez's Evil Dead, a dark and brutal interpretation of the tongue-in-cheek original, was one of 2013's best movies. Now, with Raimi behind him once again as a producer, Alvarez is back with his follow-up - the equally dark and brutal Don't Breathe.

Set in the rundown slums of Detroit, Don't Breathe is about a trio of burglars - a young woman named Rocky (Evil Dead's Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto from It Follows and Beneath), and her best friend Alex (Dylan Minnette from Goosebumps and Prisoners) - who have been systematically robbing the customers of Alex's father's home security company. They catch wind of a huge score that is just ripe for the plucking; a blind Gulf War veteran (Avatar's Stephen Lang) who lives alone and is sitting on a stash of cash. The thieves break into the man's house, but it soon becomes apparent to them that the blind man is far from helpless, and they have picked the wrong house to victimize.

Jane Levy stars in Screen Gems' horror-thriller DON'T BREATHE. Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment, All Rights Reserved.

Don't Breathe is a nail-biter. Fede Alvarez and his co-writer, Rodo Sayagues (who also collaborated with Alvarez on Evil Dead), have made the kind of movie that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat, constantly leaning forward in anticipation of the who-knows-what that's going to happen next. There's a little suspension of disbelief on the viewer's part that has to occur for the movie to be completely plausible, as the inexperienced anti-heroes make some questionable decisions throughout their heist, but by about the middle of the film, none of that matters. All bets are off, and the audience is completely engaged.

Not only does Fede Alvarez know how to make a movie, but he knows his cinematic history as well. Don't Breathe contains homage after homage to classic and not-so-classic thrillers. On an obvious level, the story itself is reminiscent of home invasion flicks like Wait Until Dark and The People Under the Stairs. Throughout the movie, Alvarez also winks and nods towards everything from Aliens and The Burning to Panic Room and The Silence of the Lambs, culminating in a note-perfect rendition of a scene from Cujo. Alvarez knows his stuff, and he isn't afraid to admit where he learned it. Still, even with all of Alvarez's tributes, Don't Breathe does not come off as an unoriginal rip-off (*cough* The Lazarus Effect *cough*). Think of it in the same way as music sampling - Alvarez takes moments from other films and inserts them into his own story, thereby creating something wholly new and exciting. And scary.

Jane Levy stars in Screen Gems' horror-thriller DON'T BREATHE. Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment, All Rights Reserved.

It's no accident that Don't Breathe is set in Detroit. The hopelessness and desolation of the boarded-up neighborhoods translates into desperation on the part of the anti-heroes. Because of this, Alvarez is able to humanize the thieves, basically making the audience root for the three criminals (well, two out of the three anyway - the boyfriend Money is pretty much of a douchebag). Over the course of the film, the hunters become the hunted, and regardless of their past indiscretions and current intentions, the burglars become the good guys.

As great as it is, Don't Breathe does go off the rails a little in the third act. The ending seems to drag on pointlessly, almost as if Alvarez finished the movie, then realized that it was short of the standard ninety-minute horror movie running time, so he just rolled camera on a few more chase and catch scenes. It's forgivable though; if the biggest problem Don't Breathe has is that the audience has to repeatedly see the hero escape from the villain, it's doing something very right.
The most impressive aspect of Don't Breathe is its effective use of sound. Or, more specifically, its effective use of no sound. Since most of the movie involves the trio of thieves trying to elude the Blind Man, there are long periods of deafening silence. All of the characters will remain absolutely quiet, the Blind Man carefully listening for the intruders while Rocky and the guys desperately try to not stir or shuffle - or even breathe (so it's not just a clever name). All of a sudden, there will be a creak or a scuff, and then, all hell will break loose. Sound designer Jonathan Miller (Saw, Phantom) builds maddening tension through the absence of noise, then slams the audience into the action with near-cacophonous chaos. The eerie incidental music, composed by Roque Baños (The Machinist, Oldboy), is almost an extension of the sound design, made up of rhythmic patterns and pulsing melodies strung together from household and industrial sounds, as if the house itself is alive and hunting for the burglars alongside the Blind Man. Whether it's being quiet or loud, the sound in Don't Breathe is an indispensable element of the film.

Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy and Daniel Zovatto star in Screen Gems' horror-thriller DON'T BREATHE. Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment, All Rights Reserved.
Scary Factor
Don't Breathe is full of scares, but not in the traditional way. Of course, there are jump scares, but the more effective terror is inspired by the sheer suspense and paranoia that Alvarez injects into the film. With the help of cinematographer Pedro Luque (The Silent House), Alvarez uses long, swimming takes to increase tension to a boiling point, seemingly touring the house along with the burglars while also providing a bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing by subliminally (or not so subliminally) pausing on different implements that may or may not come back to play a part in the anxiously unfolding events. Also, although they are nowhere nearly as graphic as those that Alvarez displayed in Evil Dead, there are scenes of brutal violence mixed in, particularly within the third act when the whole thing gets a little torture porn-y and, frankly, pretty gross - without spoiling anything, blood is not the only bodily fluid that gets spilled in Don't Breathe. Between the unbearable suspense and the cringe-worthy gore, Don't Breathe doesn't need traditional jump scares to be frightening. It's its own brand of horror.

Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette star in Screen Gems' horror-thriller DON'T BREATHE. Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment, All Rights Reserved.

Horror, Thriller
Release Date
August 26, 2016
MPAA Rating
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Casting Director
Music Score