Critics often dismiss blockbuster entertainments with the vague, half-assed complaint that they resemble “video games.” Movies like Fede Alvarez's Don't Breathe reveal games' actual influence — for the better. The breakthrough with studio horror films in recent years, since the found-footage boom, is a welcome environmental immersiveness. It's a testament to the craft of production designers and camera operators that the movies now so persuasively show us just what it would be like to pick your way through some moldering basement of menace. Don't Breathe's first hour is an often exemplary you-are-there house-prowling simulation event, boasting a creepy verisimilitude that can't yet be rendered on an Xbox. Alvarez's camera, like James Wan's in the first Conjuring, weaves patiently through a creaking old Colonial home, trailing a trio of teen burglars down half-lit corridors, around shadowed corners and — exquisitely, excruciatingly — through doors you might wish they'd keep closed.
Sometimes, in studio pictures, long takes from a free-floating camera play as distractions, showy flourishes that needlessly kept the digital team busy for months. But not in horror's house-exploration subgenre. This in-the-moment slowness — an innovation rooted in found footage, in the comparatively static and silent Paranormal Activity films, in the exploration gameplay of Resident Evil and Alien: Isolation — emphasizes specific physical space and the protagonists' metabolism. It invites viewers into a uniquely active spectatorship. You might not know their names, but you breathe with these people.
Alvarez's characters and camera navigate their world just as a player of some RPG or third-person shooter would navigate a continuous 3-D environment, controlling both an avatar and the very perspective through which the action is viewed.
While not shot in a first-person POV, Don't Breathe still situates us in its leads' fragile bodies, often showing us just what they see in something like the amount of time it would take them to see it. Viewers onboard with this kind of thing will scan the crannies and crawlspaces, eyes straining for the terror in the shadows. Alvarez proves adept at springing surprises in these moments, a skill that combines all the art and technique of moviemaking with the architecture of 3-D level-planning and the carny showmanship of building a professional haunted house.
That's enough for me to have relished it. You should know that there's a terribly stupid plot point involving a pair of rapes, and that the violence, once it starts, is grimly brutal, protracted and entirely un-supernatural. This is a fantasy, of course, but not a fantastical one.
In outline, Don't Breathe is another tale of dumb teens doing dumb things and running afoul of a tireless, revenge-minded killer. Too much of the film's back stretch is concerned with watching people try to squeeze or beat the life from each other only to be stopped in these endeavors by a person or pet that had previously seemed to have its life snuffed.
Don't Breathe has a story: Hard-times Detroit teens (Daniel Zovatto as the thrill-seeking dope; Dylan Minnette as the tiresome, lovesick nice-ish dude; Jane Levy as the determined young woman who has reasons to turn to crime) smoke up and break into houses but make the mistake of trying to rob a blind vet while he's sleeping. Every horror-movie sign indicates this is a bad idea. He's IDed as having served in Iraq, which in the terms of the most thoughtless of horror films means he's traumatized and equipped with the usual set of desert-war killing skills. He's blind, and horror is not often above the exploitation of disabilities for creepiness. He lives in a stretch of otherwise abandoned Detroit blocks with a relentless Rottweiler and a reputed treasure in cash holed up on the premises, which is three warning signs at once. He's lost a daughter in a car accident, which means, in the genre, that he's haunted and almost certainly mad — and that the filmmakers have an excuse to play home movies of a moppet singing nursery rhymes in a minor key.
The teens don't know they're in a horror film, though, so they proceed only to get chased, locked in, shot at and eventually trussed up and dragged screaming through the streets. The heavy (Stephen Lang) is a silver-bearded rage-mountain: When the movie needs him to be terrifyingly quick and certain in his movements, Lang is convincing; when it needs him to be uncertain in his blindness, discombobulated as the kids dash away, he's less so — it's as if he occasionally remembers he can't see.
The script, by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, steadily and inventively heightens the tension of the break-in and the inevitable hiding and chasing, at least until everything gets ridiculous toward the end. There's even one innovation: The Blind Man has the good sense to cut the lights in the basement while trying to hunt down the thieves who have broken into his home. Alvarez then shoots the sequence in a grayish cast that reads as night-vision. The teens stumble about with their eyes gaped wide and their fingers splayed out, feeling through the clutter.
Sometimes their pursuer is in the shot with them, looming and listening, hoping to bump into them. There's no in-story excuse for this see-in-the-dark perspective — no security cam we're looking through, no military goggles some bystander is wearing. It's just a new way to see a familiar cat-and-mouse setup, and Alvarez, with wit and aplomb, knows we're ready to roll with it. It will be imitated, just as Don't Breathe itself imitates.