It dawned on me nearly immediately while watching Fede Alvarez‘s new horror film, Don’t Breathe, that from this point forward, whenever I hear associates bemoan the lack of good feminine roles in Hollywood, I’m holding up the horror genre as one of the few places in the system that actually nurtures and supports strong female leads. These hardworking actors, deemed, unfortunately, scream queens, make a tidy living in a film class thought more of as performance art than actual art. There are juicy roles available for any actress willing to dive into the grime and swim with the hatchet murderers and zombies.
From Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s Psycho, to Sigourney in 1979’s Alien, to Kathy Bates and Jodie Foster’s award winning performances in Silence Of The Lambs and Misery, to the brave women in Neil Marshall’s The Descent in 2005, to Jampanoi, Alaoui, Maiwenn, Beatrice Dalle, and the rest of the Valkyries leading the New French Extremity charge, female actors have always had a solid foundation in the business of making teenagers scream.
Of course, the paycheck isn’t always fat. But when the work – the work that doesn’t require signing a nudity rider – pays off, it pays off in long term dividends. Case in point actor Jane Levy and the two films she’s worked on with Fede Alvarez – 2011’s extra-mucky remake of Raimi’s Evil Dead, and his latest offering, Don’t Breathe. Levy’s performances in both films indicate an actor strong enough to make the crossover into mainstream motion picture award fodder. Her character arc in Evil Dead would test the talent of any of the SAG elite in the drama industry. In Don’t Breathe, she shoulders the bulk of 88 minutes of horror movie mostly spent with a blind, nearly-mute killer, and if we end up suffering nauseating bouts of tension and hyper-anxiety, it is because she, not he – the sightless monster tracking her down – has put us in this condition.
It’s an act of emotional transubstantiation. It’s also just one hell of a performance. Again. From an actor few people have ever heard of.
There’s a line Stephen Lang’s “Blind Man” says during Don’t Breathe (one of his very few) that reads something like, “A man can do anything he wants once he accepts that there is no God.” Lang being this movie’s central protagonist, but, in one of the many surprising shifts presented in this film, he’s been antagonized into this role by the antagonists. The crux of this horror movie being – who do we sympathize with? This man who’s been stripped of everything he’s ever loved, including his eyes? Or the three, young, dirtbag criminals after his money? And if we’re on this Blind Man’s side… why is he so terrifying?
Devoid of a deity, the Blind Man has turned his home into his total universe. One where he’s a lesser god in charge of good and evil – in charge of who lives and who dies, and how bad that death is going to be. Departing from the frenzied splatter of his Evil Dead remake, Fede Alvarez decides to focus his filmmaking prowess (both writing and directing) on making an old fashioned Hollywood thriller completely cached inside a hard horror shell. Tropes included. The beauty of Don’t Breathe is that it takes every known trope in this business, and completely turns it inside out.
Cell phones actually work in this movie. Though we wince every single time they do. Plenty of door locks and deadbolts as well – which is unfortunate for the three kids trapped inside this place. As mentioned earlier we wouldn’t be out of line for feeling something close to sympathy for this villain. A villain that shouldn’t be dismissed as merely a blind war vet with a pistol (though it’s shocking how frightening that combination can be when projected onto a theater screen) but something more in line with one of Bernie Wrightson’s illustrated ghouls – all knotted muscle, teeth, and scar tissue.
Yet it’s too easy to label this freakishly suspenseful, irrevocably violent film as a traditional horror film. Alvarez is obviously pulling ideas and techniques from a few places outside his wheelhouse. Don’t Breathe is the single location mousetrap of David Fincher’s Panic Room – though with a much heavier emphasis on the ‘panic’ portion. (this isn’t a guess either, Alvarez’s design choice for the final credits of Don’t Breathe are a direct nod to Fincher’s opening credits for Panic Room) Don’t Breathe is kin to Terence Young’s classic 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, just re-sequence Alan Arkin’s sleazy sociopath Mr. Roat into a frightened lamb trapped inside Aubrey Hepburn’s apartment lair.
Now picture Mrs. Hepburn as a demon werewolf.
Fede Alavarez conducts a master class in gripping an audience by the throat, and once locked in he knows exactly when to squeeze, and when to twist, and even when to tickle. In that respect his new film Don’t Breathe plays like an old carnival spookhouse. But one where the frights are allowed to throttle the patronage.
This is one of the best horror rides I’ve had in years.