If modern horror were to be summarised and presented by just one film, Don’t Breathe would probably manage it. Uncomfortably loud synth notes open up the film with its expansive shot and curious opening. Fede Alvarez is the unsung sleeper hit of the modern horror boom. His handling of Evil Dead shows confidence in him from the old guard of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell. Is their confidence misplaced? Maybe so, because Don’t Breathe is the summarisation of modern horror, a genre that takes tumble after tumble as it tries to approach technology, the future and all things uncomfortable with one broad sweep of the hand. The results are never pretty, sometimes perfect, but for Don’t Breathe, they’re completely bleak and ubiquitous.
As much a heist montage as a thriller set on terrifying audiences, Don’t Breathe makes a few fumbles along the way to its inevitably turgid payoff. Getting to know this trio of amoral robbers is a difficulty. It is not because the performances are bad, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto are all capable enough, but they are given little to do. They rob, they socialise ever so briefly and then rob again. It is a viciously dull cycle that can never be broken for the film structures itself so greatly upon it. These are not effective growths of character though. Empty conversations that open into emotionally tumultuous breaches of reality. It is sudden and inexplicable. It is the age-old problem of having characters act as entities, not people.
That may be tough to manage for Don’t Breathe, and it is fair to see that Alvarez tries his best to avoid those moments in the later stages. The inevitable build-up that came before it is thankfully lacking in the tension-packed final third. What does become apparently problematic, though, is the role given to Stephen Lang. Some exceptionally talented tensions come through though, the lingering darkness of the basement scene and the unknowing shadows are magnificent but are too little, too late. Lang’s disturbed character is hard to deal with at times because while he plays the part of the villain all too well, his direction is never established and the character’s intentions are much grimmer than anticipated. Alvarez has no way of connecting that with the edification of others.
Short, sweet and sufferably solid, Don’t Breathe is a fine enough piece of entertainment that will rely more on Lang’s qualities as a villain than anything else. Protagonists that are dull and feel more like cannon fodder akin to Friday the 13th in the sense that they are unknowable. The benefit of that, naturally, is horror fans and ghoulish audiences will feel no sympathy as they traipse through a seemingly derelict house. Where some will find comfort in the tasteless, trope-clad horror, the darker side of Don’t Breathe comes out fully formed and with no desire to infiltrate the mind on anything more than brutalism. There is no emotive message, no angle for conversation or topical destruction, just dull clean brutality for the sake of it. It makes the characters leaky and ruins any chance Alvarez has at crafting a uniquely angled horror.