*. I was only about fifteen minutes into this one before I recognized that it was a remake of Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991). The connections seemed obvious. Craven, in turn, had based his screenplay, loosely, on a true story about burglars breaking into a house and finding a bunch of trapped children.
*. On the DVD commentary for this film Stephen Lang (who plays the Blind Man) asks writer-director Fede Alvarez and writer Rodo Sayagues if the idea was based on a true story. They initially say the idea was just about the blind man but that they also knew about the various stories of girls who had been held captive in basements for years and thought it would be cool to make a movie about people breaking into a house and finding such a situation. The People Under the Stairs isn’t mentioned. Did they not know it? I’ve noticed on a lot of DVD commentaries that directors and writers conspicuously fail to acknowledge their greatest debts. I’m not sure why this is. I mean, on the commentary for Quarantine they don’t even mention that it’s a remake of Rec!
*. So Don’t Breathe isn’t breathtakingly original. Even the blind villain isn’t that new. We’d already seen the blind troglodytes in The Descent, and there’d been a pack of blind hoodie-wearing ghetto rats in Citadel. Being sniffed out by monsters with heightened senses of smell or hearing goes back at least as far as Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972), and probably much further.
*. But originality isn’t what’s important in a genre flick like this. What we want is alert direction, a good villain, and at least one memorably gross scene (usually, but not necessarily, a “good kill”).
*. Don’t Breathe delivers on all three of these. The promotional campaign told us it was being brought to us by the same people who did Evil Dead. Note the missing definite article: not The Evil Dead (1981) but Evil Dead (2013). Yes, Sam Raimi was part of the production team here, but it was helmed by Fede Alvarez, who had directed Evil Dead.
*. Those aren’t great credentials, but apparently Alvarez took criticism of Evil Dead to heart and decided he wanted to go in a totally different direction. What he meant by this was an original script, less gore, and less CGI. Good idea. And while Alvarez hardly reveals himself as a major new talent with this film, he does demonstrate an understanding of the basic grammar of suspense and he doesn’t give do anything too idiotic. Exasperation at an idiot plot can really hurt a film like this.
*. The good villain in this case is the Blind Man, played by Stephen Lang. It’s not a great part. As with the best heavies, he has few lines and we don’t actually know that much about him. He remains mostly mysterious. But he’s different and has a unique look. I especially like the muscular reality of him. What I mean is he doesn’t look buff but rough: this is an old guy with old-man strength. That wifebeater and those heavy boots are the uniform of someone who doesn’t give a fuck any more.
*. He’s also, while not given “depth,” a character who is allowed a certain amount of sympathy. He’s Eastwood wanting these punks to get off his lawn, and he has a point. Sure he goes (or the film takes him) too far in the end, but he’s not just a bogeyman.
*. Finally there is the one memorable gross-out. This doesn’t involve the dispatch of any of the kids but rather concerns a loaded turkey baster dripping in anticipation, and a hair suspended in milky viscosity. Definitely an “ew” moment and not one likely to be forgotten by anyone who sees it. What more can you ask?
*. In addition to these essential elements there are signs of a real desire to make it all interesting. I’m thinking in particular here of the long shot (or what’s made to look like a single long shot but probably was at least two or three shots spliced together) introducing us to the interior of the house. They didn’t have to take us on a tour of the whole house (sans basement) right away, but since we’re with the gang all the time it fits, and it’s done so fluidly we don’t even realize how well it’s being done. That final flip underneath the bed showing us the gun is like the cherry on top. Take that, shaky-cam aficionados! This is real filmmaking!
*. I appreciate that cellphones can be used as flashlights in a pinch, and that’s how they’re used in a number of recent horror films. But shouldn’t a gang of burglars breaking into a house at night have brought some flashlights? I would have.
*. What does the Blind Man mean when he says “I’m not a rapist. I never force myself on her”? Does he mean that Cindy accepted her part in a bargain? And why would that distinction (which is casuistry anyway) apply to what he plans to do to Rocky?
*. Where is all that light coming from outside the windows? The exteriors don’t show any streetlights, but it’s like it’s high noon on a sunny day out there.
*. The ending is dark, leaving things open for a sequel (which became inevitable on the film’s success). It was, however, originally imagined as being much darker, with Rocky not escaping. This would have been a real downer, and yet more in keeping with the nihilistic spirit of contemporary horror.
*. Personally, I find the nihilism trite. “There’s no God. It’s a joke. It’s a bad joke. You tell me what God would allow this.” That’s easy to say. “There’s nothing a man can’t do once he accepts the fact that there is no God.” Or vice versa, depending on how you define God.
*. So this isn’t a landmark or game-changer. It’s a welcome relief from the found-footage genre (which one could easily imagine it being done as), but it’s very much in line with another sort of film I’ve referred to as the “trap” movie. This is a genre where the protagonists aren’t besieged within a house so much as they’re stuck in a situation they have to either escape from or die (think The Ruins or any of the many, many Game of Death films, the children of Saw). So to be sure we’ve been here before. But it’s all put across with professionalism and intelligence, and it has a crazy old muscleman chasing some kids. And a turkey baster too.