Sunday, August 28, 2016

Catch Your Breath: Don't Breathe (Mostly) Fires On All Cylinders [Contributor: Melanie]

This review contains spoilers for Don't Breathe. Read at your own risk.

Jump scares are my #1 pet peeve when it comes to horror movies. They’re quick, they’re simple, and they don’t require any real analytic thought. In short, they’re a gimmick. If you’re worried your movie isn’t going to scare, you throw in some loud bangs, quick cuts, a few people popping out a little too quickly, and you’ll get some kind of reaction out of the audience, even though said reaction is simply your amygdala reacting to startle stimuli.

Don’t Breathe, however, is the first film to take this worn gimmick and use it for its intended purpose. It’s a film with a very familiar concept: home invasion. Only this time, the roles are reversed. When a group of teenagers looking for quick cash to flee their dead-end lives in Detroit decide to rob a blind man rumored to have $300,000 locked away in his house from a cash settlement after the vehicular death of his daughter, they find themselves hunted by the more-than-capable, would-be victim.

After I went to see Crimson Peak last year, I talked about the difference between horror and terror. Horror is an umbrella term for a lot very different types of media. Shirley Jackson, famous for The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery, very academically laid out the difference between the emotion of horror and that of terror. And her two most famous works are likely the best examples of that: Hill House is a work of terror because it suggests the presence of ghosts and danger without ever truly showing the monster, while The Lottery shows you the danger and then forces you to engage with an emotional response as the woman is cornered by her neighbors and stoned to death.

And even more relevant example, perhaps, is director Fede Alvarez’s remake of Evil Dead, which was a total Hellraiser-level gore-fest complete with blood rain, graphic injuries, and pretty terrifying looking demons (if you saw those YouTube ads, you got a taste of what I mean). That’s pure horror. And that was the biggest criticism of that film: too much gore, too much shock factor, too many visceral distractions. So Alvarez set out to prove he could make a horror movie without the crutch of gore by relying on another crutch: suspense.

Don’t Breathe is Alvarez’s terror answer to the complaints of his most recent horror film. And it works extremely well. Not unlike what Paranormal Activity wanted to achieve with the static camera on a sleeping couple, this film forces the audience out of a passive participant role. This is the literal definition of “edge of your seat.” The excellent use of sound, a night vision sequence to rival Silence of the Lambs, and an expert use of tracking shots all work in tandem to make an experience that’s truly an assault on the senses. And that’s what terror is all about.

It’s not simply written off as a thriller because thriller relies on a sustained adrenaline rush. Action. This film relies on the potential. And the pay off is given in small bursts and waves as the burglars are picked off and the Blind Man gains more ground in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. Much of the movie is made up of our protagonists carefully moving through the house, watching the Blind Man, barely dodging attacks. But, at a certain point, the tension will have to break completely and that also, non-coincidentally, is where the weakest part of the movie lies.

Showing the monster is the #1 way to remove the scare factor from a film. The Phantom is only terrifying because you don’t know what’s under the mask. The first Paranormal Activity works because you never see what’s terrorizing Katie and Micah. Halloween is so ironically scary because the Shape has no name and no face. It Follows came very near to scoring a 10 in this event, with the slow-walking, shape-shifting proverbial “it” never getting a face or identity. But it was ruined when we were granted a glimpse of it murdering a victim, taking away your imagination’s ability to concoct some terrifying manner of death for the victims who turn up mutilated after it gets a hold of them.

Don’t Breathe has a similar pitfall. The Blind Man goes lineless for most of the movie, simply giving out a series of grunts and yells as his hulking presence, more akin to a vengeful spirit than a man, stalks around the house. We find out that the true secret of the house is not the money, but that the girl who hit the Blind Man’s daughter with her car locked up in the basement. Things dissipate completely when the Blind Man starts talking about 60% of the way through the movie. He monologues about his vengeance against the girl who bought her freedom out of a vehicular manslaughter charge and talks about how he is keeping her prisoner and forcibly impregnating her via artificial insemination, believing she owes him a child.


He gets a lot less scary at that point. Sure, that’s completely demented and the scene where he intends to perform the same process to Rocky, one of the burglars he captured, is totally disturbing. But the biggest thing this guy/villain had going for him is gone. When he was a voiceless shape of violence and brutality in the dark, he was petrifying. When he’s talking about a bizarre punishment with barely justifiable motives, not so much. We’ve seen him. They’ve shown the monster. And suddenly I’m a lot less on the edge of my seat during the last act of the film. Imagination is a powerful thing. It was easy to see who the woman locked in the basement was and why she was there, but giving advanced explanation with weird details only detracted from the effect. I’d rather keep the man beneath the monster a mystery.

Or, if you wanted to suggest some human evil, at least make his crimes a little less... weird.

But that narrative misfire was only a blip on the overall effectiveness of the movie. It’s entertaining, the characters are worthy of your sympathy, and all comes to an earned ending free of any suggestions of a sequel. The fare in horror has been mild this year with only The Witch standing out as a truly great release. But don’t worry, that Blair Witch sequel/reboot we all totally wanted is coming in September. Yay.


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