29 August 2016

There's a line from the television series Supernatural uttered by the demon-and-ghost-hunter Dean Winchester that I've always loved: "With our usual playmates there's rules, there's patterns; but with people, there's just crazy." While paranormal villains like Freddy Krueger and creature-feature monsters like the Blob are certainly spine-tinglingly terrifying in their own rights, there's nothing quite as scary as the unpredictable, savage nature of a human being. You can keep a ghost away with some salt and iron, you can cast away demons with a crucifix, and you can hinder Michael Myers by not being a horny teenager, but when it comes to a person - a Ted Bundy or a Jeffrey Dahmer or a John Wayne Gacy - you don't really know what to expect. Before they gained their respective infamy, those aforementioned serial killers were just faces in a crowd. Hell, one of them was a clown. Today, however, their faces and their names remind us of the relentless truth that sometimes people can be the real monsters. There is always more than meets the eye, and frankly I can't think of a more fitting idiom for Don't Breathe.

dont breathe poster

Actor Stephen Lang plays an aging war veteran known only as The Blind Man - our at first seemingly innocuous antagonist in Fede Alvarez's 2016 horror/thriller Don't Breathe. As implied by his given title, Lang is completely blind, and for the three tight-knit burglars who plan to steal a small fortune from Lang's home, that fact is a blessing. Apart from his blindness, Lang is an old geezer living alone in a near-abandoned neighborhood - so for the three friends, the robbery should go off without a hitch. But of course if that were the case, Don't Breathe wouldn't make much of a movie, now, would it?

I suppose I should link to the trailer right about now, but if I'm being honest, I don't think you should watch the trailer or any of the film's previews for that matter (if you haven't already). If you'll pardon the pun, Don't Breathe works better if you go in blind. While the trailers don't necessarily give away too much, there's this irritating trend among movie previews today (especially in the horror genre) where they show a bit more than they need to. I believe a concise synopsis, such as what I've written above, should be enough to get horror fans to nod their head and say "I'm in." And while I'm not trying to rag on movie trailers, I do feel that sometimes certain movies don't really require them, especially if they carelessly give away too much of the plot. Most of the time a simple, mysterious "teaser" will suffice. But I know nothing about marketing, and it's all about marketing, so what the hell do I know? And make no mistake: the marketing for Don't Breathe was and has been substantial. TV spots, multiple trailers, printed and digital advertisements, etc. This movie was and is everywhere, and it damn well deserves to be.

There are many reasons to be enraptured by the very idea of Don't Breathe. For one, it takes the concept of home invasion and gives it a total makeover. Don't Breathe is like The Strangers if Liv Tyler had been blind, belligerent, and dangerous, with every intention of slaughtering the titular intruders. Here we find ourselves actually rooting for the burglars and hoping that they'll at most have to face off against a Kevin McCallister-type with paint cans hanging from the ceiling and iced-over steps. Beyond that, Don't Breathe gives us a break from the paranormal-drenched era of modern horror with a villain who is not only absolutely human, but visually handicapped to boot. Movies like Wait Until Dark and the more recent Hush had protagonists who were blind and deaf, respectively, but here comes a horror where the blind guy - who, under normal circumstances, would be considered the victim of burglary and assault - is actually the deranged baddie. And don't worry - I haven't spoiled the flick. Believe me, I've barely scratched the surface of this white-knuckle thriller. And fear not, because I have no intention of filling you with a turkey baster full of spoilers. Uh, you'll get that reference once you see the movie. And then you'll never look at turkey basters the same way ever again.

A common issue with modern horror movies is the jump scare. When done right, jump scares are a delightfully terrifying mechanism, but more often than not in scary movies we see cheap jump scares, used thoughtlessly, needlessly, and solely to make you jump out of your seat without adding substance to the movie or advancing the plot or doing anything at all, really. Obviously in a movie like Don't Breathe, the jump scares are going to be prevalent, presented in the form of the eerily quiet scene, and we all know that in a horror movie when everything goes quiet, a jump scare is likely right around the corner. While Don't Breathe certainly uses jump scares, it more utilizes the technique. None of the jump scares are cheap or poorly-executed. Every single one of them is an eerily silent build-up; overflowing with wide-eyed tension, hair-raising anxiety, and stressful suspense; shot flawlessly at just the right angles, in just the right lighting; all while you know that it's coming, just not when or even what exactly is coming. And that increasingly unnerving build-up, however often used, never fails to send shivers down the spine. The build-up is, after all, arguably the most important part. It's all about the journey, right? And in Don't Breathe the journey is a hellish nightmare through the labyrinthine abysm of The Blind Man's dark and dreary home. It's true that he cannot see, but if for one second you think this implies that he doesn't have the upper hand, you've already lost.

And while the journey itself might be as important as it is disturbing, in Don't Breathe the destination is just as daunting and exquisitely satisfying.

Don't Breathe is an intense, edge-of-your-seat thriller the likes of Se7en, Psycho, and Repulsion. It will be a savage injustice if this movie doesn't gain the elite status of one of the best thrillers and American horror movies of the 21st century.

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Brad Grandrino

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