Hailed as "the best American horror film in twenty years" (Jim Hemphill, "Filmmaker Magazine") and Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (87%), Don't Breathe debuted at #1 at the box office and remained in the top spot for two weekends in a row. The film follows a group of thieves who break into a blind man's home thinking they'll get away with the perfect crime. When the blind man reveals a dark side, the trio quickly discovers they were dead wrong.
The term "genre-busting" is often tossed around when a film - particularly a science fiction film or a horror flick - comes around that successfully plays off specific conventions and turns them on their head. In most cases, the genre isn't exactly "busted," the filmmakers merely knew what they were doing and knew how to play against audience expectations. This is true for Fede Alvarez's (Evil Dead) latest horror offering 'Don't Breathe' starring Jane Levy and Stephen Lang. Alvarez doesn't exactly re-invent the home invasion thriller, but he takes expectations and plays with them to create an often terrifying little horror flick.
Detroit is a dying city that no longer offers young people any sense of opportunity or hope. That is why Rocky (Jane Levy), along with her wannabe gangsta boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and the love-lorn Alex (Dylan Minnette) break into rich people's homes and rip them off of their expensive goods. Alex's dad works for a home-security firm making it pretty easy for the trio to access the alarm systems and break-in without much trouble. What started out as a means to cobble together some quick cash for kicks becomes a necessity when Rocky needs to leave with her little sister in order to escape their abusive neglectful mother. The idea of California surfs around Rocky's head, but that would require a lot of loose cash that they wouldn't normally be able to fence. Everything changes when a contact gives Money the biggest tip of their lives.
It turns out, a Blind Man (Stephen Lang) recently scored a massive cash settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident. Since the old man doesn't seem to ever go to the bank, the cash has got to be inside the house - and the house just happens to be one Alex's dad has the keys to. Reluctantly, Alex goes along with the plan - if only to show Rocky how much he cares for her. Even with all of their casing steps and precautions, nothing can prepare them for the terror they're about to endure inside the Blind Man's home.
The Home Invasion horror/thriller is a pretty simple plot line. A group of people, usually misguided-youths, break into a home for kicks and few live long enough to regret the error of their ways. It's a simple enough plot, but few flicks ever manage to pull it off well. Or at least, as well as they should. Those expecting the humorless gorefest Fede Alvarez delivered with 2013's 'Evil Dead' reboot will be interested to hear that 'Don't Breathe' is relatively light on gore but stacked with unrelenting tension and terror. By setting up the key characters just enough, Alvarez gives the audience a trio of thieves you sort of like, but also believe that they deserve what's coming to them. Just when the audience thinks they have a sort of hardened anti-hero in Stephen Lang's The Blind Man to root for, Alvarez pulls the rug out and brilliantly works against expectations.
Suffice to say, there are some very interesting twists and turns to the plot that is unexpected. I won't go into spoilers because I don't like doing that sort of thing, but I'll leave it with the sentiment that I was equally surprised and horrified where the film goes leading into its final act. As I mentioned in the intro for this review, 'Don't Breathe' doesn't exactly bust or explode the home invasion sub-genre, it merely plays with expectations and knows when and where to pull punches and sock the audience in the gut. Aspects of this movie are akin to flicks like 'The People Under The Stairs,' 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,' and even to an extent 'Cujo' where The Blind Man is a near-unstoppable force of nature. Our thieves played by Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto had the misfortune of crossing Stephen Lange by daring to enter his domain. Like I said, it's nothing new exactly, but done effectively and with an energy that doesn't let the audience rest for very long.
Performances are all around excellent here and Alvarez shows how well he can manage a small cast of trapped actors. Jane Levy is excellent as the driven and tenacious Rocky. Daniel Zovatto serves up the film's few flashes of humor as the doofus of the group while Dylan Minnette gets to break out of his family-comedy shtick and show his range. While the youngsters may be main characters, it's Stephen Lang's Blind Man who steals the show. Perhaps the best thing to come out of 'Avatar' is Lang's career resurgence as he delivers yet another fierce and frightening performance. He may not say a whole lot, but he doesn't need to in order for you to fear him.
When you look at the nuts and bolts of this film, how it was made, and the summer flicks that surrounded its release, the best thing that I can say about 'Don't Breathe' beyond its effective and inventive means to terrify and audience is that it was a relatively cheap film to produce at just under $10,000,000. After a summer loaded with overly-expensive, stale, boring, spectacle movies that failed to recoup their ridiculous production costs let along their egregious marketing budgets, 'Don't Breathe' is a breath of fresh air. It's a smart movie that didn't rely on an expensive cast and chintzy digital effects to get the job done. It was a smart and simple thriller that knew what it was doing and how to entertain a target audience. Much like 'Lights Out,' 'Don't Breathe' didn't pander or dumb itself down, it just did what it was supposed to do and was a box office hit. It doesn't even have to be a horror film, but my hope is that Hollywood takes a step back and looks at the successes of these smaller films and takes into account that you don't need to spend $200,000,000 before marketing costs on a movie to make it successful. For the production budget of 'Warcraft' alone, nearly 16 films the size of 'Don't Breathe' could have been made. What I'm getting to by that little bit of industry soapboxing is that a little bit of talent and creativity goes a lot further than a massive budget, and 'Don't Breathe' is a study in simple and effective storytelling netting big results. It may not be the most original horror film ever made, but what it does, 'Don't Breathe' does really well and makes for a creepy evening with the lights turned off.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Don't Breathe' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Sony and is pressed onto a Region Free BD50 disc. The disc is housed in a standard sturdy snapper Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to trailers for other upcoming Sony releases before arriving at a static image main menu with traditional navigation options. Also included is an Ultraviolet Digital HD voucher slip.
The digitally sourced 2.40:1 1080p transfer for 'Don't Breathe' may not be the most colorful one you've ever seen, but it's playing with light and shadow and the sense of depth is what earns it some high marks. The front end of the film is absolutely beautiful. From the opening aerial drone shot of an abandoned Detroit suburb right up to the point where our "heroes" break into the home, the film is bright, beautiful, and gorgeous. Detail levels are through the rough allowing the audience to soak in all of the facial features, costuming, and the craggy details of the dilapidated abandoned homes. Once they break into Blind Man's home, everything is bathed in shadows or near-complete darkness. While some distant and midrange details are lost, the transfer still holds closeup details perfectly. Colors also move away from a naturally saturated look to a more dark and drab olive-toned color scheme. It looks during these scenes that there has been a bit of a teal/orange push, but nothing too severe. Black levels are the real star here as there is a constant sense of depth and dimension to the image, most impressively during the "night vision" stalking sequence, where there are brief flashes of color whenever a gun is fired and then returns to black and white. Other than some very slight video noise here and there, this is a near-flawless looking transfer.
'Don't Breathe' comes packed with an exhausting, tension-filled English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track. On top of the tight writing, pacing, and excellent performances, the film's big star is the audio mix and how well it plays with silence. Often we tend to look at the constant sense of surround activity as an indicator of an immersive experience. The sound design for 'Don't Breathe' should be held up as an example of how near-total silence can provide an equally immersive experience. It's the little creeks in the floor, the quiet little footsteps of our thieves, and how a distant thump can not only cause you to sit on the edge of your seat but suck you into the film. Dialogue is rendered clean and clear which is important when the main film gets going the actors are usually only whispering. The impressive score from Roque Banos provides the mix with plenty of LFE as he plays up the low tones to fill out that dissonant sense of dread. All around this is an absolutely stellar sound mix that works beautifully for this film.
Note: If you haven't seen the film yet, avoid watching the bonus features until after you see it, spoilers abound. Ye be warned.
Audio Commentary: Director Fede Alvarez, Co-writer Rodo Sayagues, and Actor Stephen Lang provide an informative and engaging commentary track explaining the different title iterations, development of the script, shooting in Detroit, Michigan and Budapest, Hungary, building The Blind Man's house. They cover a lot of ground and the commentary is thankfully free of any stalls or long periods of silence.
8 Deleted Scenes - With Optional Commentary: (HD 15:17) This is a collection of scene extensions as well as a few character motivation moments that are genuinely very good but had they been left in the film where they were originally placed, they would have dragged the momentum to a crawl. Alvarez provides a solid commentary for these moments explaining the goals of the scenes and why they ultimately didn't make it into the final cut.
No Escape: (HD 2:56) Your standard EPK bonus feature that doesn't really offer a whole lot of info other than the cursory surface details.
Creating The Creepy House: (HD 3:51) It's brief, but this is a fun look at what went into designing the layout of the house and the "traps" without there being any actual traps.
Meet The Cast: (HD 4:04) Another EPK brief feature that goes into some more details about the characters and their motivations for doing what they do throughout the film.
Man in the Dark: (HD 3:17) Stephen Lang gets a few minutes to discus his character and motivations and how he went about playing the character.
The Sounds of Horror: (HD 1:49) This is an unfortunately entirely too brief interview showcase of composer Roque Banos and the sounds he created for the house and how they worked into the music for the film. Great stuff, but again, short.
'Don't Breathe' didn't have to reinvent the wheel to deliver an effective and scary horror film. All it needed to do was show a little creativity and some sharp pacing and the results are seen on screen. I wasn't expecting 'Don't Breathe' to live up to the hype but this was a solid and creepy home invasion flick. Sony delivers the film onto Blu-ray in terrific order with a stellar A/V presentation. The commentary track and deleted scenes are solid extra features, but the making of material is a bit too slim for an otherwise near-perfect disc release. Fans should absolutely make the purchase, for the curious I'm calling 'Don't Breathe' highly recommended.