Home invasion is a common archetype among horror movies. There is no more unsettling sense of violation than the malign unknown turning a sacred sanctuary into a hostile environment where the protagonist must fight tooth and nail for survival. 2016’s Don’t Breathe took the age-old formula and turned it on its head: the stalkers are the stalked, and the safe harbor of one man’s home is a deadly trap for the intruders.
Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are a trio of petty thieves living in Detroit. By secretly abusing Alex’s home-security company employee father’s access to backup keys and security codes, the three were able to break in the houses of their marks without breaking a sweat. Rocky has been planning to take her younger sister from their abusive deadbeat mom and move to California together. The ever cautious Alex constantly urges his fellow thieves to steal only non-cash valuables as to avoid long sentences in case they were caught in the act; therefore, they could only save little from selling stolen goods. Rock and Money are eager for a big payday, and they bring the reluctant Alex on board to do the final job before Rocky starts her new life elsewhere. The target they have selected is a retired Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) sitting on a large sum of settlement the old man received from a car accident that killed his daughter.
The trio scouted the house in an abandoned neighborhood before breaking in. Unfortunately, the ominous atmosphere brought forth by the huge and threatening guard dog, the unusual choice of residence, and the unexpected level of security for a regular home—quadruple lock on the front door which Alex didn’t have the keys to—didn’t raise any red flags in the thieves’ minds; they had their eyes fixed on the prize. The theft quickly turns south when Money fails to sedate the dog, who alerts the house-owner to their presence. At this point, I should mention the old veteran is blind, and the thieves soon learn he is more than capable of defending himself.
Lang is most well known from his role as Colonel Miles Quaritch, the ruthless antagonist in James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi hit Avatar. Lang was a muscular man then, and he seems even larger in Don’t Breathe. His bulky physical presence is further amplified by the dimly lit and claustrophobic house, and his unseeing, uncaring eyes are just cherries on top of his already intimidating figure. Though he is not mute, the veteran only speaks when it is necessary, and his words are slow but deliberate. Deadly with just his bare hands, the blind man is uninterested in what the heist crew has to say, he just wants to be rid of them, as he closely guards a dark secret in his house. The unarmed protagonists can only hope to find a way out of the locked down house while evading detection.
Protagonists playing cat-and-mouse with a blind menace that primarily relies on hearing is also common archetype in horror films. 2017’s A Quiet Place features a noise-free living space created to conceal from alien creatures with ultra-sharp ears that destroyed most of human civilization. Although the two movies share a similar type of terror, Don’t Breathe is by far the more satisfying watch. A Quiet Place (as do many other horror films) is obsessed with recreating Jurassic Park’s imagery of T-Rex’s nose inches away from the hiding characters. A Quiet Place abused it to the point of losing any tension it might have built up. You can always count on the alien creatures to narrow down the location of the main characters, but nothing in the universe can compel the creatures to take an extra step forward. By contrast, the blind man is a much more intelligent and efficient hunter—every strike is a kill move, and no mistake made by the characters will go unpunished. There is no convenient plot contrivance to save the day in Don’t Breathe; as a result, tension in this film runs sky high.
The most deadly tool in the old vet’s arsenal isn’t the revolver he taped under his bed—it’s his house. The house is the blind man’s domain, and he is familiar with every nook and cranny. Same could not be said for the intruders. Every creak of the wooden floor and untimely wrong turn just puts the thieves one step closer to death. The home-turf advantage is demonstrated by the blind man’s frequent flanking moves that cut off the thieves’ escape. There’s one particularly striking sequence where the blind man cuts off the main power of the house and plunges it into complete darkness, rendering Rocky and Alex just as blind as he is. The separated duo can barely afford to call out each other’s names, and they stumble in the dark while the blind man confidently navigates between the shelves. Real panic sets in when you don’t even know friend from foe.
Don’t Breathe has a human story behind the intense hide-and-seek, but the drama never gets in the way of the action. The film aims to subvert horror conventions, and the story toward the end is a reflection of this decision. The plot twists and turns, but never overstays its welcome. The smart but simplistic story combined with elegant planting and payoffs make Don’t Breathe not only a thrilling experience, but also a refreshing take on home invasion horrors.