Everybody has been complaining about the lackluster quality of the films in 2016 so far, and while, yes, it's true that many of the blockbusters (Suicide Squad, Independence Day, X-Men, Ghostbusters, Tarzan, etc.) were massive disappointments, this has been a banner year for many other genres. Animated films such as Zootopia, Kubo, Finding Dory, and Sausage Party have been spectacular, blending gorgeous animation with profound themes and incisive commentary. Big, broad comedies like Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Nice Guys, and Hail, Caesar! hit the spot, delivering smart, crude laughs at a whipsmart pace. And of course, there have been plenty of indie hits, including films like Hell or High Water, Everybody Wants Some!!, Indignation, and of course, Sing Street. But out of all the genres that have seen great success in 2016, the horror genre stands at the front of the pack.
Why? Because from the very start of the year, major studios and indie distributors alike have unleashed a hellstorm of thrilling, terrifying visions onto the big screen. Smaller films like Robert Eggers' The Witch (a haunting, profoundly strange New England fable) and Jeremy Saulnier's vicious knockout Green Room turned heads in the spring, and during that same time frame, we also saw the surprising thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, created by Hitchcockian directorial revelation Dan Trachtenberg. As summer gave way, the horror didn't stop. The Conjuring 2 emerged as the best horror sequel in years, The Shallows became a pulpy, low-key summer smash, and many found a lot to enjoy with Lights Out and The Purge: Election Year. With the summer winding down, Hollywood has one more awesome horror movie for us- Fede Alvarez's Don't Breathe.
In terms of hype, very few horror films have had as much buzz surrounding them as Don't Breathe has over the last several months. The film received a rapturous response from the audience at South by Southwest, and critics felt the same enthusiasm- it currently stands at a jaw-dropping 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is pretty much the equivalent of a perfect score for a horror film. Words like "masterpiece" and "brilliant" began swirling around and I braced myself for a horror event- along with a possible disappointment. I didn't want this to be another It Follows, a movie that everyone else loved while I merely thought it was good. Thankfully, Don't Breathe met and even exceeded my expectations. It's an instant horror classic, a shocking, thrilling genre picture that feels like a twisted amalgamation of Hitchcock and John Carpenter, with a little torture porn thrown in for good measure. A jaw-dropping slice of sheer intensity and terror, Don't Breathe is the real deal.
Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three teens with a skill for robbing houses. They break into nice suburban homes, steal watches, jewelry, and other valuable items, and re-sell them on the street for cash. They do this all in the hope of a better life, preferably one outside of the slums of Detroit, where they all currently live. One day, Money gets a tip on the street- an old blind army veteran received a settlement after his daughter's death, and now, he's sitting on $300,000. The three teens have never stolen money directly before, but with the chance to change their lives forever, they decide to rob the house. Things go smoothly at first, but the Blind Man (Stephen Lang) isn't such an easy target. During the most critical part of the robbery, he kills Money, unleashing a cat-and-mouse game between him and the two scared teenagers. As a simple robbery turns into a life-and-death situation, Rocky and Alex get much more than they bargained for, as the horrifying secrets of the Blind Man are revealed.
This will certainly sound hyperbolic to some, but I firmly believe that Don't Breathe will go down as one of the most iconic horror films from my generation. Like audiences back in the day were shocked by Psycho and Halloween, today's audiences will be absolutely bewildered by Fede Alvarez's intensely gross vision of terror. Running at a mere 88 minutes, the film moves by like a blur, engrossing you in its horrifying world where there is no escape. Don't Breathe just keeps pushing and pushing, increasing the pulse rate of the audience while growing the desperate atmosphere on screen. The premise and characters are simple and efficient, but the execution is simply masterful. It's an almost unbearably intense movie, a claustrophobic, disturbing vision of a madman.
Alvarez began his career with a remake of Sam Raimi's classic Evil Dead, which was praised for its gory attention to detail and frightening realism. Here, Alvarez changes things up a bit, borrowing elements from the some of the masters of suspense and horror while keeping his own spin on things. What results is a combination that feels both reverent and fresh, a unique melting pot of Hitchcock, Carpenter, James Wan, and Raimi so brilliantly concocted that it feels like the work of a revolutionary new voice. Don't Breathe is certainly a thriller, but it also features one of the most horrific scenes in recent memory. To me, that's the genius of what Alvarez has created here. It's both the most suspenseful and the most gut-wrenching film of the year. By mixing the high-wire tension act of a nerve-jangling suspense classic with the revolting gore elements of modern horror, Alvarez has created something crazy, stunning, and downright revolutionary.
Don't Breathe is Alvarez's film and he carries it all the way, but it also features some clear, concise, and remarkably simple character work that fits the nature of this film. To be clear, all of these characters are not good people. Rocky, Alex, and Money are criminals, kids stealing to get ahead in life. They have nearly no moral conscience, and any hesitation that they have is eventually disregarded in favor of their desire to reach a better life. Alvarez doesn't ask you to like them at any point, but by showing their desperation, you end up caring for them just a little bit. Horror movies have always centered around kids doing "bad" things, and the way that Don't Breathe twists that premise into an extended cat-and-mouse thriller is magnificent. Jane Levy joins the ranks of Jamie Lee Curtis, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and more as a kick-ass female protagonist, one who is put in an incredibly intense situation and creating crafty solutions to save the day. Levy is asked to do a lot in this film (some incredibly uncomfortable things included), and she carries it all well.
I also enjoyed Dylan Minnette, who broke out in Prisoners (which this film shares some eerie comparisons) back in 2013. Minnette has a charming, somewhat melancholy likability, and he generates the most sympathy out of all the characters by a long shot. And finally, you'll probably end up hearing the most buzz around Stephen Lang's performance. Like the teen robbers, Alvarez tries to get the audience to sympathize for this psychopath. It quickly reaches a point where his actions are so stomach-churning that nobody could possibly root for him, but Lang pulls it off with ease. Lang plays the Blind Man as a mixture between Michael Myers and Hugh Jackman's character in Prisoners, a fearsome killing machine and a man convinced of his twisted, sickening idea of "justice." He's terrifying in the role, and I can certainly see him going down as one of the great movie killers.
There is a scene in this movie that you've probably heard about it by now. You probably don't know what the scene contains (and it's definitely a spoiler), but if anybody you know has seen the movie, they've probably told you all about the extremely messed up scene that takes place near the end of this movie. Remember when I said a couple weeks ago in my Sausage Party review that very few mainstream movies are truly outrageous anymore? Yeah, well, I guess I spoke a little too soon. The gross-out conclusion of Don't Breathe is shocking, nauseating, and outrageous- in the best way possible. It is one of the gnarliest, most extreme setpieces I've seen in a modern horror film, or maybe any film in general. Some will love it, and for others, it's the point where the movie will lose them. For me, it was the natural evolution of the film's narrative into truly insane territory. All horror movies today have to go just a little further to shock audiences, and Don't Breathe takes it to a whole new level.
For one hour and 28 minutes, you will be on the edge of your seat. From the chilling opening shot to the haunting conclusion, Don't Breathe is ferocious, uncompromising, and ultimately, one of the scariest movies in a long time. Every noise, every movement, every breath- it's all fair game to terrify the living hell out of you. It's such a pure rush of adrenaline that I feel like I need to see it again just so I can catch all of the little details. It's a movie so good that I can already picture a bunch of hacks making a whole series of awful sequels to this incredible piece of filmmaking. Masterful, gripping, and utterly extraordinary, Don't Breathe lives up to the hype and more. Head to a theater, buy a ticket, and buckle up for one of the craziest rides of the year.
THE FINAL GRADE: A (9.3/10)
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures