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It’s been a great year for horror so far. 2016 has already given us The Witch, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Neon Demon, Green Room (more of a thriller but still terrifying) and Lights Out. As if we weren’t spoiled enough already, Don’t Breathe is released – a stripped back, thoroughly enjoyable but utterly tense rush of adrenaline. Its story involves three young adults, Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto), living in Detroit. The trio commit petty burglaries of homes to save up enough money to leave the crumbling city. They decide to rob from the wealthy Norman (Stephen Lang – Avatar), a reclusive blind man. However, as Money states – “Just cos he’s blind doesn’t mean he’s a saint”.
Don’t Breathe is the sophomore feature from Fede Alvarez, the young director who brought so much style and energy to 2013’s rather unnecessary Evil Dead reboot. This time, working with his own original property, he is truly in his element. His direction is stylish but not just for the sake of style, always pushing the plot forward. Take for instance, the scene in which the gang first enter Norman’s house. There is this great tracking shot which glides effortlessly between the four lead characters – giving their position in relation to each other, while also providing a survey of the home for the viewer. As a result of this slick camera-work the rest of the action is easy to follow throughout, now the audience is keenly aware of the geography of the central location.
Alvarez’s plot (which he co-wrote with Rodo Sayagues) is ingeniously high-concept. Just like the recent Lights Out, Don’t Breathe’s premise (“in the dark, the blind man is king”) enables the movie to do interesting things with the age-old fear of darkness and its depiction on-screen. For example, the film does away with something that has always been bothering regarding horror cinema. Typically, to portray characters surrounded by total darkness, the screen goes completely black aside from a few faint glimpses of the outline of the actors’ bodies. This is irritating because the action is usually murky and unclear rather than visually terrifying. Alvarez, instead, shoots one of these scenes with what looks like a thermal imaging camera. The result is similar to a black and white sequence but with heavy chiaroscuro lighting a lot like the night raid scene in Sicario. This method of shooting enables the director to capture the sensation of being lost in the dark (as we see the actors desperately grasp at their surroundings to gage where they are) while also presenting the action in a coherent way.
The movie, also, manages to retain a sense of gallows humour. Alvarez really puts his protagonists through the ringer, constantly building up a sense of relief that they are safe and then sadistically pulling the rug out from under the viewer with the realisation that they are far from it. There is a sequence, in particular, involving the Alex character which is constructed like a hilariously shocking Rude Goldberg machine of pain – raising a few nervous titters from the audience at my screening.
The movie is also very economical with its time, cutting to the chase quickly. Through some extremely brief expositional dialogue, a few establishing shots of Detroit’s urban decay (which evoke memories of It Follows) and one or two quick domestic scenes – we learn just as much as we need to know about the characters’ motivations and just enough to make us sympathetic to their plight. However, this could also be down to the performances, particularly Jane Levy as an unshowy but charismatic final girl and Stephen Lang’s wonderfully creepy performance as the blind antagonist. Lang even somehow manages to imbue his monstrous character with some humanity, earning a little empathy from the audience – despite how chilling he is.
Don’t Breathe has the setting of It Follows, the high concept plot of Lights Out and the violence of Green Room, while still retaining the sense of dread and horror from all these films. It’s breathlessly fast, tightly constructed and above all, features non-stop white-knuckle tension.
Don’t Breathe is in cinemas from Friday 9th September.
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