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Arts & Culture

'Don't Breathe' Serves Up Home Invasion Formula With A Twist

Stephen Lang plays a blind man in "Don't Breathe" but that doesn't make him a helpless victim when three kids invade his home with the intent to rob him.
Screen Gems
Stephen Lang plays a blind man in "Don't Breathe" but that doesn't make him a helpless victim when three kids invade his home with the intent to rob him.

Companion viewing

"You're Next" (2011)

"Evil Dead" (2013)

"Lights Out" (2016)

The new film “Don’t Breathe,” which opens Friday throughout San Diego, offers a twist on the home invasion horror formula.

Three friends — Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) — decide to move from petty crime to grand larceny when they discover that a reclusive man (Stephen Lang) is sitting on $300,000 at his home in a rundown Detroit neighborhood. Conveniently for the crooks, all the homes on the street have been abandoned, and he’s the only one living on the block. And did I mention that he’s also blind? That prompts Alex to wonder if it’s “messed up to rob a blind guy.” But Money assures him that just because the guy’s blind doesn’t mean he’s a saint.

Nor does it mean he’s a defenseless victim. In fact, Lang’s blind war vet turns out to be more terrifying than the gun-toting young criminals who quickly discover that they are the ones trapped in the house and under attack.

The film is directed by Fede Alvarez, who helmed the “Evil Dead” reboot three years ago. With that film, he revealed a flair for gore and occasional black comedy, but not a real sense of storytelling. “Don’t Breathe” serves up less gore but more emphasis on the mechanics of moving the story forward in a dynamic manner. As with “The Evil Dead,” Sam Raimi serves as one of the producers. His sort of Looney Tunes horror sensibilities surface more than once in the film, especially when it comes to dealing with the blind man’s protective dog.

The initial premise of the film is clever: Let’s do a home invasion where the seemingly handicapped victim turns the tables on the invaders. Alvarez knows how to handle the action with some gritty flair but the script he co-wrote with Rodo Sayagues comes up short. The main problem is that it doesn’t seem willing to go some place really dark and suggest that neither the kids nor the blind man are worthy of our sympathy or compassion. It sort of heads in that direction initially. After all, it’s hard to sympathize with people who are not merely robbing a blind man but are also robbing him of the settlement he received because his daughter was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Then it becomes hard to sympathize with him once we discover what he’s hiding in his house.

But then the film backtracks and tries desperately to turn Rocky into a Final Girl (you know the lone, last survivor in a horror film that tends to be female and often virginal) that we can root for. But just because she’s got a bitchy mom and has dreams of kidnapping her little sister so they can escape to California doesn’t really absolve her of all guilt or suddenly make her likable. And her Final Girl rally at the end was difficult to cheer on. In some ways, I was more willing to root for Lang’s character. But that might be because he’s such a far superior actor to his younger cohorts. The attempts to manipulate emotions were just annoying and not very effective.

Money (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky (Jane Levy) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) are three friends who decide to move from petty crime to grand larceny in "Don't Breathe."
Screen Gems
Money (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky (Jane Levy) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) are three friends who decide to move from petty crime to grand larceny in "Don't Breathe."

The script generally relies on manipulation in order to get everything to play out. The street has to be deserted, so there’s no one to call 911 or to interfere even though the gunshots, screams and dog barking gets loud. It takes short cuts in trying to convey information. Rocky’s mom makes a crude joke about her daughter resorting to prostitution to make ends meet, and Detroit is used to symbolize how lousy the opportunities are in America. All this is somehow supposed to justify Rocky’s actions and cause us to feel compassion for her. But it doesn’t work.

Alvarez also makes some stylistic mistakes, most notably not allowing more scenes to play out without music and heavy-duty sound effects. Since Lang’s character is blind, he has to listen for the people moving around in his house and the home invaders need to remain as quiet as possible to avoid drawing his attention. But the tension involved in that is diminished if the soundtrack is pounding in your ears and sound effects are overpowering. The scenes that rely more on silence are far more intense and nail biting.

“Don't Breathe,” (rated R for terror, violence, disturbing content and language including sexual references, portrayal of sexual violence, with no nudity or detail) as with the recent “Lights Out,” serves up low-budget horror that doesn’t quite hit the mark. But the two films at least fail in more interesting ways than most of what’s available. Both try to work within a restriction and find a slightly different treatment of horror film tropes. If you don’t go in with high hopes, both deliver some satisfying moments… they just fail to deliver fully satisfying films.