Three robbers (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto) target a house in a derelict area of Detroit, believing a blind combat veteran (Stephen Lang) has a large cash sum to hand. Once inside, they discover the home-owner has other secrets and is dangerously resourceful.
Lately, a cycle of home invasion movies have vulnerable protagonists – the deaf heroine of Hush, the agoraphobic of Shut In (aka Intruders) – turning the tables on murderous, larcenous thugs. Don’t Breathe takes a slightly different tack on this premise, focusing on three varied crooks – an unstable bad boy (Daniel Zovatto), a girl who needs cash to escape a horrible home life (Jane Levy) and a basically decent guy with a crush (Dylan Minnette) – who make the mistake of picking on a grizzled, wiry-tough blind ex-soldier (Stephen Lang). Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs and the French Livide have played this reverse-the-threat game – though another contemporary run of movies have regular criminals clashing with outright maniacs (No One Lives, The Neighbour, The Collector).
Having dashed off the competent, not-exactly-memorable Evil Dead remake, Uruguayan director-writer Fede Alvarez doesn’t exactly go all-out to break new ground with this ‘original’ – but does demonstrate a profound understanding of how this sort of suspense picture works. Revelations come along every ten minutes – each making the trap default heroine Rocky (Levy) has willingly stepped into more perilous and extreme. There’s already tension in the uneasy alliance of the criminal trio, and the stakes rise once they’re inside the large, sinister house – which has more locks than expected and an owner attuned to every creak of a floorboard or shard of broken glass.
Alvarez makes a point of prolonging the agony. Every time one or other of the robbers has a chance to get away clean, something pulls them back. The last act subjects the final girl to a ferocious, slobbering guard dog, a padded basement dungeon (with suspension harness) and a shocking home medical procedure. Lang, an underrated character heavy best known for Avatar, is a powerful, menacing presence but manages moments of pathos too.
An intense, streamlined exercise in gruesome thrills, with a tiny glimmer of social context (it’s all about the economy) which doesn’t take away from the exciting struggle to get out of this house of horrors.