Most “home invasion” movies focus on innocent people being terrorized by bloodthirsty invaders. It’s a pretty effective premise, which is why we’ve seen so many solid movies of this stripe in recent years. From You’re Next and The Strangers to the recent favorite Hush and the classic Wait Until Dark, the set-up is usually the same: a few unwitting victims are set upon by some wildly unwelcome guests, and the fun is in seeing how the average person responds to an irrationally violent presence.
And then every once in a while, the “home invasion” premise gets flipped on its head: this time the invaders are the prey, and the homeowners are the villains. Fans of horror flicks like Livid, The Collector, and the off-kilter cult classic The People Under the Stairs know what I mean. These are movies in which “mild” villains decide to invade the wrong house and promptly find themselves running for their lives from the “hardcore” villains. This sort of home invasion switcheroo requires a little extra creativity from the filmmakers if they want to turn low-rent crooks into viable protagonists, but it’s safe to say that Fede Alvarez (director of the surprisingly solid Evil Dead remake) has a damn good idea of what he’s doing. His new horror flick, Don’t Breathe, is quite possibly the finest “home invasion role-reversal” flick I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly the slickest, sickest, and most consistently intense.
As is often the case in this sub-genre, the setup is refreshingly simple: three greedy young crooks decide to rob a house in which resides an allegedly helpless old blind man. Desperate for money, they break into the creepy dude’s house… but almost instantly come to regret their decision. Not only is this blind man far from helpless; he’s actually some sort of raving psychotic who quickly locks the invaders in and begins picking them off one by one. Moral of the story: make sure the person you’re about to rob is not a certifiable maniac.
Much of the film’s success relies on the crafty screenplay (by Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues) and its generous handful of unexpected plot contortions, but fortunately, Don’t Breathe also showcases a pair of fantastic lead performances: Jane Levy (previously great in the aforementioned Evil Dead remake) does a fine job of creating a conflicted anti-heroine. Sure, she’s an amateur thief, but thanks to some helpful character development and a fine, nuanced performance, we actually (and quickly) come to root for this morally-conflicted young woman. Easily Ms. Levy’s equal is the great Stephen Lang, who is probably best known for his villainous turn in Avatar, and who is nothing short of a horrific force of nature in Don’t Breathe. Although the character is, of course, completely blind, Lang portrays the nameless Blind Man with a powerful physicality and ominous demeanor that combine to create one of the most fascinating horror villains in quite some time.
And just so you don’t worry that Don’t Breathe is little more than a series of cat and mouse chases between three stupid thieves and one terrifying brute, rest assured that Alvarez has more than a few twisted tricks up his sleeve. Throw in some great music, superlative sound design, and a wonderfully eerie visual palette, and damn. The end result is a shockingly entertaining thriller that’s not only one of the most novel “home invasion” movies you’ll ever see, but easily one of the best horror flicks of the year.
Rating: 4.5 ridiculously suspenseful burritos out of 5
(Screened as part of the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival.)
Image: Sony Pictures