Home invasion movies aren’t exactly original properties: we’ve had break-ins dating back as far as “Home Alone,” through “Unlawful Entry,” and “Panic Room.”
“Don’t Breathe” is the brainchild of Fede Alvarez, a director who has already attempted to make something unique from the familiar with his scarlet-hued and reasonably effective remake of “Evil Dead,” and here he has an interesting gimmick and willing cast to elevate this above your standard multiplex fare.
Using the key copies from his father’s home security company database, Alex (Dylan Minnette), has been running cash-only breaking and entering robbery scams with his friend Rocky (Jane Levy) and her untrustworthy hoodlum boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto). Rocky dreams of escaping her abusive breadline existence, so Alex, pressured by Money’s aggressive, greed-driven desires, agrees to rob a house in which $300,000 is stored in a safe. Adding further moral conflict to the plan, the target is home to a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang), who appears to be hiding more than just a fortune in his run-down abode.
The film’s greatest asset is its ability to twist up the audience, running them through the entire gamut of emotions like some kind of interactive haunted house ride. You might laugh at the ludicrousness of some scenes, but in a heartbeat you’ll be hanging onto the arm of the cinema seat as our trio of criminals try to suppress every fibre of their being to avoid being detected by Stephen Lang’s bogey man.
This allows Alvarez to have some icky fun with the plot, creating the most effective gross-out sequence since the diaper incident in “The Visit,” coupled with some nice stylistic choices borne from shooting in claustrophobic air ducts or pitch black basements.
However, the most effective sequences are those accompanied by silence, with the creaking of a floorboard or ringing of a phone doing so much more than a jump scare ever could.
The actors also do a pretty good job of making you care whether they’re caught.
Minnette was great in “Goosebumps,” and here makes good use of his level-headed likeability and good guy charm to ensure you hope he makes it out of the front door.
Levy, who Alvarez has put through the wringer before in “Evil Dead,” can do tortured soul restoring to kick-ass survival with ease, making for a watchable heroine.
But it’s Lang who’s the draw, uttering primitive noises and ghosting around the house like a vested Terminator. With unclear motivations and secrets, he’s easily the most intriguing element of the film, making the sillier aspects of the plot slightly more plausible.
Clocking in at a very welcome 88 minutes, the brevity adds to the gut punch nature of “Don’t Breathe,” showing a narrative restraint rare in a genre that can often trip up over multiple eye rolling twists.
Here, simplicity is key, and only with a final reel coda does the storytelling stumble, almost undoing the good work with a twist so clichéd that even the “Scary Movie” franchise wouldn’t touch it.