‘Don’t Breathe’: Prowlers become the prowled in solid horror film

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A blind military veteran (Stephen Lang) fights back when teenagers burglarize his home. | Screen Gems

What a nasty piece of work.

“Don’t Breathe” is an impressively photographed, well-acted, relentlessly paced horror film sure to sicken some and delight others with its twisted sense of humor — and its twisted sense of plot twists, come to think of it.

You know how some of the best thrillers are psychological puzzles that play tricks with your mind and feature a minimum of on-screen violence?

Yeah, that’s not this movie.

Among its other cringe-inducing but impressive feats, “Don’t Breathe” contains one of the 10 most disgusting scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror film, and I’m going all the way back to Linda Blair’s antics in “The Exorcist” as a reference point. I don’t even need to catalog the hundreds of gross-out, blood-curdling, stomach-churning scenes I’ve seen since the 1970s to be absolutely certain this particular moment would have a place in the Top (Bottom?) 10.

The premise of “Don’t Breathe” is a bit of twist on “Wait Until Dark,” the 1967 film (based on the 1966 play) starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind housewife terrorized by three thugs searching for missing heroin. Once again we have three criminals invading a house occupied by a blind individual; from there, the plots diverge wildly.

Here’s the deal. Three smug teenage burglars have been targeting upscale homes in the Detroit area. (As they wryly note, they’re quickly running out of nice houses to burgle.)

There’s Money (Daniel Zovatto), a trash-talking, quick-tempered wannabe thug; his girlfriend Rocky (Jane Levy), who dreams of a big score so she can escape with her little sister to California and get away from her abusive mother, and Alex (Dylan Minette), who is clearly in love with Rocky and is the one who provides the keys and the access codes to the houses, because his beloved and hapless pops is a security guard who makes it all too easy for Alex to access that material.

The volatile Money gets a tip about a potential six-figure score involving a blind Gulf War vet (Stephen Lang) who lives alone on an otherwise abandoned five-square-block stretch of Detroit. Turns out the seemingly feeble and crazy Blind Man (he’s never given a name) had a daughter who was run over and killed by a girl from a wealthy family, and the girl’s family paid the vet off with a handsome cash settlement.

Easy score, right? All the teens have to do is sedate the obligatory growling Rottweiler chained up in the backyard, release a little chloroform into the Blind Man’s bedroom while he’s sleeping, locate the safe and ta da! They’ll be rich!

Suffice to say things go horribly wrong from the get-go, or we wouldn’t have a movie called “Don’t Breathe,” would we?

Once Money, Rocky and Alex have figured out a way into the extremely well-secured house — a sign they should have heeded — they quickly realize they’re in for a long and possibly bloody night. Yes, they have the advantage of sight over the Blind Man, but he knows every inch of the house, he of course has superior senses of hearing and smell, and even though he looks old enough to be their grandfather, he’s a deeply disturbed and physically imposing war veteran with a taste for violence. Best not to creak a floorboard or leave anything lying around he can use as a clue to ascertain your hiding spot.

One of the intriguing elements of “Don’t Breathe” is the lack of a clear-cut hero to root for. The character of Money is the most thinly drawn; he’s just a jerk. But while we find room to sympathize with Alex and in particular with Rocky, their greed is what put them in this situation — and their greed is what escalates the madness as the night grows bloodier.

As for the Blind Man, well. He’s hardly a victim, and we’ll say no more.

Talented as they are and as clever as they are with some nifty mid-movie developments, director Fede Alvarez and screenwriter Rodo Sayagues make a mistake, I believe, with a pre-credits sequence that colors our expectations of just about everything that transpires for the remainder of the film, which is essentially one giant flashback.  And they traffic in a few too many horror-movie clichés — including the ending — for “Don’t Breathe” to ascend to the instant-classic status some have ascribed to it.

Still. In what is shaping up to a banner year for scary movies, this is another solid and memorable entry.


Screen Gems presents a film directed by Fede Alvarez and written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues. Rated R (for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references). Running time: 88 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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