Love the Evil Dead (2013) as much as I love the Evil Dead (1981). Maybe not as much as Dead by Dawn, but still, Alvarez is a talent to watch. In a visual sense, he has shown to mix the kubrickian sensibilities of symmetry and electric colour (not quite to the level of Refn or later Zombie, but hey, it's a start) with that particular standard of Lionsgate 21st century horror. I don't know how to describe it, but there's kinda a late 90s horror sheen to productions like Saw, and parts of Cabin in the Woods, that is strangely appealing. Anyways, Alvarez is enough reason to go see a movie. Like Adam Wingard, Jeremy Saulnier, and Ti West (not to mention David Mitchell after the incredible It Follows), he's carving out a niche for himself in the American horror market, and it's an interesting alcove in which to spend a couple hours... so off we go.
It's a brutally impressive narrative arc - Fede's first considering a lot of Evil Dead was an IP-based plot. Essentially, three kids(?): Rocky, Alex, and Money, rob houses for a living - never quite stealing enough to be convicted of grand Larsony if caught. But, in the end, this tactic just isn't bringing them enough money to meet their goal of ditching Detroit and moving to sunny California. Alvarez spends a lot of time showing us the awful conditions of Rocky's family life, and the abuse suffered by her and her sister, to engender an unlikely sympathy in the three antiheroes. However, an opportunity presents itself when Money is given a tip-off about a blind man sitting around on a 300k settlement: the race is on to ditch Detroit and get to a better life. It doesn't go to plan.
The blind man (Stephen Lang in case you're wondering) turns out to be an immensely skilled combatant - with incredible hearing. After failing to succumb to a sleeping-gas based attack, he comes down stairs. Unfortunately just in time to hear a gunshot from Money (trying to blast through a door). The addition of weapons to the situation means that the man is perfectly within his rights to kill every intruder, and so the majority of the rest of the film consists of Lang stalking the teens through his derelict Detroit house.
It makes for one hell of a film in many respects. Not least because it feels like the continuation of a 70s/80s revival marked in blood by modern classics such as 'House of the Devil' and 'Piranha 3D'. This is a simple, high-concept piece of action, with the house itself becoming the main stage. The camera swoops and dives over the characters movements, frequently revealing the blind Lang at the worst possible moments. Featuring a blind protagonist has that kind of advantage: startling 'jumpscares' (although there are no real jumpscares in the modern tacky sense) that have continued tension and fear well after the initial 'BOO!' moment, as Lang hovers in the room with open ears.
As you can imagine, the sound design is beyond immaculate. This is a real contender for the sound mixing Oscar, although genre films such as Alvarez's rarely get the tip of the hat due to their content. Every sound, from the moment the blind man awakens, is heightened to ethereal levels in the surround sound of your local theater. Every gasp, footstep, and movement is painfully loud to our ears, and brings Lang disturbingly close to the action. From a crack of glass to the sound of a screaming woman, noises become more vital than the visuals themselves, allowing us in some small way to step into the shoes of the blind man as he tracks his prey.
Visually, Alvarez lights the firecrackers just as he did with the Evil Dead. Kubrickian symmetry abounds in the early exterior shots of Detroit - perhaps evoking the more recent Lost River and It Follows. In the house, there are a variety of sumptuous rich blues fading into blacks and the yellow halogen of aging incandescent lamps. A splash of red here and there to spice things up a bit as well, of course. Upstairs, an 80s CRT TV blasts out memories from happier times to a tune of static and faded nostalgia, illuminating the sorry state of the blind man's room in a sort of melancholy glow. Down in the basement, Alvarez reinvents his chromatic key completely with a dramatically ironic twist that sees Lang flipping the switch on the power generator to plunge the intruders in pitch darkness - the camera switches to creepy greyscale nightvision. In fact, these scenes are perhaps the highlight of the entire movie, with the sound being heightened to an unreal level. Even a brush of a hand along a surface sends a devastatingly loud sonar echo through the audience's ears, and as Rocky gets closer and closer to the blind man in the dark, without actually seeing him of course, is perhaps the most effective shot I've seen all year in terms of tension building. Aesthetically, Don't Breathe also makes extensive use of slow motion (of which I'm a huge fan). Alvarez likes to position his characters falling from side on or top down angles, and then switch into ultra-slow-motion for maximum effect. I like that too. But then again, as you probably already know, I adore slow motion waaaay too much....
Now's probably the time to mention that although this is a horror, it is not exactly what I'd call scary. Instead, it has a sense of nail biting, unrepenting, nigh-on unbearable tension that shoots from around 5 to 100 within about a millisecond, and then sticks there for the rest of the picture. It's a fun, 80s styled nail-biter that'll have you on edge for the full runtime, and it has it's share of jumps, but a very large percentage of the film features the blind man onscreen, and thus the thrill comes more from the tension of holding one's breath (shh, he can probs hear the audience too) rather than anticipating a muscular Corbyn lookalike to burst through the wall. Interestingly enough, writing this the day after my Blair Witch review feels oddly misplaced. Blair Witch feels much more like an Alvarez film in line with the visceral horror of his evil dead; and Don't Breathe feels like a humorless Wingard film what with it's retro affections, originality, and aesthetics.
*MINOR SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH* Of course, these shenanigans cannot go on forever: there would be too many problems for the movie. Number one) It's nigh on impossible to sympathise with the main characters given that they're housebreaking and stealing from an old man... and they have a gun, so he's entitled to kill them. With this in mind, and the blind man being unrelatable with his stony face and deadly skill, there's not really anyone to root for. Number two) There seems to be no explanation about why there's a lock on the basement other than a red herring in the first act. If that's the sole point of the lock then it's just there to serve the scene, and diminishes that aspect of the movie. Number three) there is no explanation given for why the blind man is prepared to hurt, kill, and chase the teens even though they've earnestly offered to leave peacefully on several occasions.... Likewise, the way that he boards up all the doors and the windows to prevent escape is also an enigma. At the point where all these small niggling issues begin to spill over, Alvarez bowls a hard left into a shocker of a twist that'll have you satisfied who the actual bad guy(s) is/are, answer all of your questions, and make your stomach churn so bad that, at one point, you'll probably yelp in disgust (our whole screening did). Very strong notes of 'The Gift' here, another stellar horror thriller with a particularly nasty twist (read my review here) From there onwards, it's a relentless and efficient exercise in the same brutal tension as before, but now with some brutal violence added as well. It feels justified by the preceding scenes (which may turn as many people against the film as it will bring on its side), and if you're into that particular brand of dark, nasty thrills then you'll love the way that it spirals out of control and into complete chaos.
The performances are all solid. Special props to Lang for making 'the Blind Man' quite possibly a future 'classic slasher' type character. Imposing, brawny, and intelligent; the Blind Man is everything you want in a villain. What's more, he's got motive. Jane Levy's performance as Rocky is also emotionally tender, yet incredibly tough-as-nails - with a 'final girl' type edge to it. Of course, returning to an Alvarez production after her role in the Evil Dead, again as the main character. Dylan Minnette gives an interestingly vulnerable feel to his character as well, ,feeling inferior to Money, and wanting out of the game as quick as possible.
All in all, it's perfectly efficient, built in direct correlation to a climax, tense as fuck, and brutally nasty to the point of help-put-your-hands-over-your-eyes-cause-its-grim. It takes a refreshingly dim view of jumpscares and trashy modern horror moves, eschewing them in favor of greater originality (such as the basement scene). And it does so whilst looking and sounding pretty damn awesome. If you're a fan of 70s/80s horror, slashers, or the home invasion movie, you'll love this. Just please, for the love of God, don't bring your nan...