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House of horrors - 'Don't Breathe'

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Horror film subverts home invasion genre tropes

By many measures, the summer of 2016 has been a bit of a disappointment in cinematic terms. There were a number of high-profile flops and even the films that did well didn't do quite as well as many had predicted, whether we're talking commercially, critically or both.

However, an exception to that rule might be in the horror genre. A number of horror offerings over the past few months have proven quite strong; films like 'Lights Out,' 'The Shallows,' '10 Cloverfield Lane' and 'The Conjuring 2' have all been well-reviewed and well-attended.

Next in line is 'Don't Breathe,' a surprising and effective twist on the home invasion subgenre that features plenty of scares, yes, but also some dynamite performances and a fluidity with regards to just which character is the film's actual protagonist. It comes together into a film rife with suffocating power.

Rocky (Jane Levy, 'Frank and Cindy') is a young woman living in Detroit. She's desperate to get out so desperate that she and her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto, 'It Follows') have resorted to burglarizing houses to raise the necessary money to leave town. They've enlisted the help of Rocky's best friend Alex (Dylan Minnette, 'Goosebumps') whose dad runs a security company to gain access.

But when Money learns about a house in one of the shadier neighborhoods where the resident allegedly received a massive settlement following the death of his daughter, a plan is hatched. One big final score and they can all get out of this game and start their new lives. While casing the place, they learn that the man (Stephen Lang, 'Isolation') a war veteran is blind. The three of them break in late one night, assuming that this will be an easy score.

They have assumed wrong.

What follows is a desperate game of cat-and-mouse one where the three friends learn very quickly that they have greatly underestimated the man's capabilities. Far from being helpless, he proves more than able to defend himself and his homeas well as the secrets contained within the house's darkness.

Director Fede Alvarez who also co-wrote the script is best known for his work at the helm of the 'Evil Dead' remake from a few years back. That sense of extremity is very much present in 'Don't Breathe,' albeit in a different form. Rather than waves of gore, the intensity is mined through narrative twists and deft use of darkness and light. There's a constant claustrophobia that permeates the entire film, creating smothering scares that are as intense as they are unpredictable.

Perhaps most intriguing is the fact that we're left unsure as to for whom we should be rooting. These three young people are thieves, looking to steal from a helpless blind man. Granted, he proves to be far from helpless, but they don't know that going in; they don't allow any sort of ethical obstacle to stop them from going forward. What Alvarez manages so brilliantly is to mine the audience's sympathies to bring forth conflicted feelings about everyone involved feelings that eventually leave us uncomfortable and more than a little unsettled.

Levy is an extremely talented young actress who clearly fits well with Alvarez's aesthetic she starred in 'Evil Dead' as well and displays a knack for horror performance that will likely serve her well going forward. She's great here, largely eschewing that standard damsel in distress/final girl clichs in favor of a capable strength. Minnette and Zovatto are solid, though both definitely take a back seat to Levy. And Lang is simply outstanding, imbuing the role with a consistent rough physicality that serves to greatly enhance his relatively sparse dialogue. A lesser performance would have sacrificed a lot of nuance; Lang brings it forth in a big way.

'Don't Breathe' has an uncommon complexity that sets it apart; far from a run-of-the-mill home invasion thriller, it instead calls into question our perceptions of what is good and bad. With excellent performances and a constantly-shifting narrative, it's an outstanding horror movie in a year that has seen more than its share. Genre fans will delight in this unconventional take from a rising talent.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:38

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