My introduction to Fede Alvarez was back in 2013 when he directed the Evil Dead reboot; in retrospect, that was an assignment that was far from ideal as a welcome to mainstream horror. While Alvarez was decently hyped up as the correct person to helm the film, I don’t think I’d be the only person to say that the end product was disappointing. For all its originality–and there was a good deal– there still was something lacking in the film, its grim tone a departure from the direction that series had taken, and the reboot has since delicately faded from memory.
This is all a way to say that Don’t Breathe serves as a much better initiation for Alvarez, a fully original and intelligent concept both written and directed by the thirty-eight year old. One of the most entertaining aspects of the film is the manner in which Alvarez both indulges in and twists the standard beats of a slasher film; look no further than its concept, in which the home invaders end up being the ones entrapped. An even better example (SPOILER SECTION) of this would be the way that Alex takes the brunt of the physical torture in the film, usually reserved for the final girl. In fact, in a lot of ways the way in which he took abuse from the Blind Man made me think of the manner in which a character like Sally is treated in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Yet, in the film’s final moments it reverts back to standard moments; Rocky must still pick up the phallic weapon to defeat the Blind Man, and the lingering threat of a subpar sequel is instilled in Don’t Breathe‘s final moments as it turns out, obviously, the antagonist wasn’t defeated. This aspect of the film is one I’d very much like to return to in a longer, more thought out post–I have a feeling there’s a good deal worth discussing about how and why the film both upholds and demolishes genre conventions, but at just a few hours past watching it I’m not sure the thoughts have completely crystallized. My first thoughts revolve on perhaps considering this against female representation in the film, especially with the overtly sexual, physical and emotional transgressions as the film progresses. Consider how the ultimate goal of the Blind Man is one which, while upholding a sort of vigilante justice to pay for past sins, is a deranged plot to strip the female characters of control over their bodies. This feels absolutely key, and it makes me wonder to what degree Alvarez is funneling both social and genre commentary through the treatment of a very well known trope. A part of this commentary is absolutely felt through the fact that Alvarez neither sexualizes the violence (as it so often is in the 70s and 80s horror films) nor completely indulges the amount of violent abuse towards Rocky that is often thrown the the final girl character. This is certainly a raw thought, but its one I’d like to return to after I’ve had more than a couple hours to digest the material, as I think its extremely fertile ground for discussion.
Another facet of the film worth approaching that makes the experience all the better is the realism it has. Motivations are incredibly clear for every character in the film: for the bandits its love, escape, or money while for the villain it’s justice. Furthermore, Don’t Breathe does an incredible job of avoiding the stupid decisions often made in slasher and horror films; we all know the cliches about splitting up, entrapping oneself, etc that end up satiating the bloodlust of the antagonist (and audience), and those are completely avoided in the film. Almost every move a character makes feels organic to the situation as the film unfolds as a chess match between worthy opponents; granted, the physical defect of the Blind Man proves advantageous to Rocky and Alex, but he (and that horrifying dog) still seem to be one step ahead of the victims. This may not be an incredibly deep thought, but it’s something worth mentioning because it makes Don’t Breathe all the more engrossing.
I’d like to end with a couple quick thoughts too on setting: it seems like in the past years filmmakers have begun to find that the economic turmoil of Detroit creates an eery backdrop for horror films. The most important example of this would, of course, be It Follows, a film which had a good deal to say about Detroit and the divide urban decay and the suburban space of the city. While Don’t Breathe doesn’t necessarily focus on this to the degree that It Follows did, the economic tensions of the city certainly bubble up, most importantly in Rocky’s knee jerk decisions focused on allowing her and her sister to escape the city for sunnier California. Furthermore, the film sets up a bit of tension with the Blind Man–his block is mostly deserted and rarely patrolled, and he notes that “rich girls” don’t have to pay for their crimes, hence the way he was treating the victim in his basement. I don’t think the film has quite as much to say about Detroit as it does about genre conventions, but it certainly is interesting to think about the difference in the way an outsider (Alvarez) portrays urban space and threats versus the manner in which Robert Mitchell does.
These being first thoughts, they still feel a bit incomplete, but there was a lot going on that I wanted to at least throw out there, waiting to see what will stick and, hopefully, lead to the longer, more in depth post or paper that Don’t Breathe deserves. As it stands, the film is one of my favorite horror outings of the past few years, feeling original, avoiding repurposing nostalgia too heavily in favor of a wholly unique experience, and being genuinely scary at points. Highly recommended!