Breathing Room (2008)

*. There were two horror subgenres that exploded in the twenty-first century. The first was shaky-cam or found-footage films, the second was the Game of Death or locked-room psychological thriller. To be frank, and maybe even a bit cynical, both cases were being driven by their low bottom lines. These kinds of movies got made because they were cheap and could e counted on to make a good return on minimal investments.
*. Cube is usually given credit as the original Game of Death movie, but it was the success of Saw that really got things started. Breathing Room is one of the clearest rip-offs of Saw, right down to the flickering fluorescent lights, the surveillance cameras, the miniature cassette player with taped instructions, the discovery of various in-game hints, and the shock collars used to enforce the rules. Even the general décor of the single set has a similar, if less worn, look.
*. Calling Breathing Room a rip-off doesn’t mean it’s bad. Not necessarily, anyway. It just means it takes the same basic premise and a lot of the same elements. Unfortunately, nothing about it is as well done as Saw, or even House of 9.
*. It’s not a problem that Breathing Room looks as cheap as it does. It was apparently shot on a $25,000 budget, which I would have thought was impossible. By way of comparison, Saw cost over $1 million. We may take a low budget and all that comes with it for granted when playing the Game of Death. The problem is that there’s nothing in the direction or the script to help Breathing Room rise above its limited means.
*. Say what you will about these locked-room flicks, but they do at least foreground the scriptwriter’s art. If you have a small group of characters trapped in a room interacting with each other, and that’s it, then the script has to do most of the work.
*. This is where Breathing Room falls down. It’s fun to play along with, but it’s a big tease with no payoff. Clues regularly arrive, but none of them are pertinent to anything important. The rules, such as keeping your hands clean, seem totally superfluous. A new character is introduced in the final act who has no role to play at all. There is no explanation of how the killer(s) manage to do all their work when the lights go out. But worst of all is the ending, that totally flubs the question of who is behind all of this and what the point is.
*. You could argue that Cube also left this unresolved, but it was a different sort of movie (and the later films in the Cube series filled in the blanks). What’s odd about Breathing Room is that we are taken behind the curtain but we’re left in the dark as to whether the game is a form of punishment, a social psychology experiment, private entertainment designed by a wealthy sadist, or a reality TV program. This matters because the ending is what is supposed to make sense of everything that’s gone before.
*. As with any good murder mystery, the revelation of the killer is what the whole story builds up toward and, in hindsight, can be seen as having been constructed around. Here there’s just a blank. Why is there a game? Because if there wasn’t then there wouldn’t be a movie. If the rest of the movie were better they might have got away with this, but instead we’re left feeling that the filmmakers either didn’t care or weren’t trying very hard.

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