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Don’t Breathe

Year: 2016
Production Co: Ghost House
Director: Fede Alvarez
Writer: Fede Alvarez/Rodo Sayagues
Cast: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang

If 2013's Evil Dead remake had come before Sam Raimi's scrappy, can-do 1981 original it would have been a horror classic, the latter just a bunch of fanboy nerds trying to emulate something slick and well made. It's almost sacrilege to say so, but all talk about budgets, the effects of the time, the longevity of the idea and the behind-the-scenes story we all love about Sam Raimi's original aside, Fede Alvarez' remake was a better movie. It had a better story, better subtext, better effects and it was just plain scarier.

So it was always going to be interesting to see what the 38-year-old Uruguayan director would do next, and in Don't Breathe he's surpassed himself. From a purely technical filmmaking standpoint, Don't Breathe might be the best-made film so far in 2016, and it's a thrill a minute as well. If the Oscars ever acknowledged horror movies it would be the front-runner for sound design, for one thing.

Three kids in the crumbling urban wasteland of Detroit rob houses to make ends meet, and for Rocky (Jane Levy), her brutish boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and their nerdish friend Alex (Dan Minnette) who holds a secret candle for her, they hear about a big score that might be their ticket out.

They go to scope the place out and it seems the job couldn't be easier. Not only is the old guy who lives in the huge house said to be in possession of three hundred grand in cash, there are no immediate neighbours anywhere close and he turns out to be blind.

The night of the job comes and the trio breaks in to the dark, cavernous house to start the search. But their mark (Stephen Lang, the villainous general from Avatar) wakes up mid-robbery, aware there's someone in his house.

You've seen the moment things go south in the trailer – he not only blind, he's a war veteran who's not shy about fighting back to protect himself and his home. Rocky and Alex quickly understand they might not get out with their lives, let alone the money, and a cat and mouse game between them and the blind man ensues.

Don't Breathe looks, sounds and moves like a horror movie, but it's actually a thriller with some scary scenes in it. In a more overt entry into the horror genre the antagonist might be more of a 'set up' bad guy, the house rigged with traps and bugs everywhere to torment and torture whatever hapless burglar ends up in Rocky and Alex's positions.

There is indeed something darkly evil about him (as revealed by a shocking development about halfway through) but the race to catch his intruders before they get away is purely one of plausible circumstance, the tension cleverly woven into the script rather than through any specific devices or set pieces on the screen and without the need for ridiculous story contrivances or plot holes to roll your eyes at.

None of which means there aren't some classic horror motifs that have the potential to enter immortality the same way we talk about time machine DeLoreans or needing a bigger boat. Be warned, you'll never look at a turkey baster the same way again...

The location and cinematography work beautifully together, the crumbling location lit either in darkness or with slivers of the sickly orange light of down-and-out urban street lighting. Even more impressive is the sound, which elevates the material immeasurably. If it's not the unsettling musical soundtrack comprised of bangs, scrapes and shudders it's the heavy, fear-tinged breathing or whispers of the kids as they plot their escape.

There are plenty of jump-scare moments and Lang's milky eyes make him look like a ghost as much as his hard-lined face make him look as much like a monster made of stone. He's rarely shot from the front in full light, making it seem even more like he's some creature on the edge of our dimension.

It's one more element that fools you into thinking Don't Breathe is a gore-soaked haunted house movie, but there's very little blood and no more violence than you can see on any prime time TV show. It's all in the tension, and both Alvarez' direction and his script with co-writer Rodo Sayagues twist it ever-tighter with expert precision.

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