More than any other genre, horror movies give filmmakers permission to indulge their Id, which may be the reason that even some of the worst horror movies have interesting—and often alarming—things to say about the world. Don’t Breathe, a new horror-thriller from Ghost House Pictures (co-founded by Sam Raimi), isn’t one of the worst, but its vision of the world is plenty alarming and, plenty believable, because the film taps into so many unsettling truths about our society. It’s set in Detroit, and concerns three young thieves who break into the ramshackle house of a blind Gulf War vet who, allegedly, has a significant stash of cash inside. The trio—their names are Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Alex (Dylan Minnette), assume the job will be easy, since their victim (played with ominous calm and exactitude by Stephen Lang) is blind. But the Blind Man is no dupe, and he’s got every inch of this old, dark house memorized. And let’s not forget, the man is a war veteran: Blindness hasn’t taken away his considerable observation skills or his warrior strength.
With all its economic misery and urban decay, Detroit has become an ideal setting for horror movies, including the freaky, if overrated, It Follows (in which Daniel Zovatto also appeared) and the languid vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive (although itself not a proper horror film). The Blind Man is the only person left in his Detroit neighborhood, which has become a modern-day ghost town: houses boarded up, yards overgrown with weeds and tall grass, streets empty and eerily silent. The decayed city becomes a tapestry on which the movie can project its themes. Capitalism has failed, and in its wake are poverty, crime, and underwater mortgages; the war, of which this victim/predator is a veteran, never really ended. Tragedy begets tragedy, and all the bad things in Don’t Breathe, including every criminal act, are linked to a chain of other preceding bad things.
Ultimately, the real horror isn’t a madman chasing you through his house with various weapons, or a dungeon full of terrifying secrets, but the failure of economic systems to keep us financially stable, the truth that war never sustains any lasting sense of power (especially for the soldier, a mere pawn, whose skillfulness, adept though it may be, is rewarded with the loss of his sight). Encroaching decay lives all around us, and Don’t Breathe makes smart use of such bleak realities. The fact that the three kids are thieves at all (this burglary attempt is, they’re hoping, the final score, the one that will set them up for life), is because they see it as the only way out of Detroit, out of failed dreams and a lifetime of poverty. Rocky lives with a neglectful mom who sits on the couch and chain-smokes. She’s promised her young sister that the two of them will move to California one day, and the money she nets from this burglary will fund the move.
Rocky proves to be resiliently focused on the money, even when the three kids become trapped in the house, and even though it quickly becomes obvious that the Blind Man isn't going to let them go. He’s a vengeful spirit inhabiting a powerful, agile body, and his house is fitted with all kinds of secrets: narrow little passageways, a maze-like basement, hidden compartments under the tile floors. Not to mention the fact that they’re totally isolated, and no one will hear any cries for help. But also, they can’t really cry for help because of the whole robbery thing.
As a thriller, Don’t Breathe works us over effectively. And while it has its share of “jump scares,” the director, Fede Alvarez (whose directing debut was the 2013 Evil Dead remake) also knows how to use silence to his advantage, ratcheting up the tension with nary a sound. For this reviewer, who grew up loving horror films of the 70s and 80s, Don’t Breathe is probably the best of its modern-day ilk, but it’s still unpleasant and grim, except for the occasional perverse touches, ingeniously concocted by Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues. (I can’t reveal them without spoiling.) Perhaps I’m lost in a nostalgic haze that’s been scored by John Carpenter and photographed by Dean Cundey, but I wish Don’t Breathe had been more fun. Fun or not, it is, however, plenty scary.