What I have identified is a recurrent depiction of American citizens committing acts of extreme violence against one another, almost always in service of financial interest.
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Watched on its own terms, Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe (2016) offers a serviceable iteration of the home invasion subgenre. The director efficiently outlines his location’s geography, makes a wise choice in privileging sound design, and fosters uniformly strong performances from his cast. The plot is simple: three young adults – Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) – learn of a blind local veteran (Stephen Lang) who has accrued a massive financial settlement from the young woman who accidentally killed his daughter in a vehicle accident. Rocky, Alex, and Money are by now well-practiced petty burglars, and so they make the decision to break into the old man’s house and snag his reportedly six-figure stash. Plans go horribly awry, as dictated by the genre’s design: the blind man wakes up during the attempted robbery and quickly murders one of the adolescent criminals. The other two remain trapped inside the home by a combination of excessive home security measures, happenstance, and a dash of well-concealed plot contrivance. Once the film’s cat-and-mouse proceedings are in motion, its trope characteristics and inversions raise points of interest.
It wasn’t long before I realized that Don’t Breathe acts as a rather direct reversal of Mike Flanagan’s Hush, another home invasion horror film released earlier this year: while Don’t Breathe features a predator with visual impairment, Hush designs its narrative around a deaf-mute protagonist. More interestingly, perhaps, Don’t Breathe offers one of 2016’s many American variations on “survival horror.” Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows finds a young woman stranded on a tiny island, forced to ward off the vicious attacks of a persistently circling shark; The Purge: Election Year, the third film in James DeMonaco’s trilogy, pits its protagonists against hordes of bloodthirsty “Purgers,” those who take advantage of an annual legalization of all criminal acts; and finally, Rob Zombie’s 31 depicts a game designed by the social elite that pits lower-class prey against depraved lower-class predators. The aforementioned Hush fits this schema as well, depicting its heroine’s struggle to ward off her psychotic ex-boyfriend’s invasion. It’s also easy to find similarities between Don’t Breathe and last year’s The Visit (directed by M. Night Shyamalan), in that both films elicit fear in the tensions between youth and old age, and perhaps more problematically between ability and disability.
The Shallows stands most clearly outside these other films in that its primary conflict includes an animal. What I have identified is a recurrent depiction of American citizens committing acts of extreme violence against one another, almost always in service of financial interest. When we look back at the origins of “survival horror” in cinema, it is perhaps easiest to begin with Romero’s excellent Dead series, starting with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Those films, much like these recent titles, function crucially on the basis of blunt social allegory. Romero uses zombies to explore issues as varied as racism, rampant military control, and mindless consumerism. This year’s varied iterations of survival horror respond in various ways to the terror of a divided nation, a country that faces the very real possibility of soon being run by a fascist bigot (read Donald Trump).
Don’t Breathe features three largely humorless protagonists, all worn down to various degrees by desperation and paranoia. Their dread is future-oriented: Rocky fears a destitute life controlled by her abusive mother, Money fears poverty, and Alex is plagued by the notion of a life of inadequacy and loneliness. Enter the unnamed blind man, who kills and rapes with chilling abandon thanks to his brazenly announced atheism (“when you don’t believe in God,” he growls, “you can do anything”). This man finds horror in the past, in a world that has robbed him of his young daughter before she really had the chance to live. Interesting that Don’t Breathe (and 31, for that matter) root their horror so unapologetically in a philosophy of godlessness. Without someone to look over you, these films suggest, you might be left to a fate of madness, instinct, and violence. These genre-codified impulses seem to speak also to a dread of governmental downfall. Without a leader who can be trusted, these people are driven into a bloodthirsty fervor. Also interesting, to that end, is James Wan’s regressive The Conjuring 2 (also released in 2016), which superficially mimics the faith-finding of Shyamalan’s Signs in order to combat its figures of threat.
What does Don’t Breathe have to say, then, that these other films don’t? I’m actually not sure that it sets out to “say” anything specific. Instead, the film situates itself largely in a sense: that sense that something has not gone according to plan, and that the consequences are creeping up around the corner whether you like it or not. It’s a film of efficiently orchestrated set pieces, in which the very act of breathing could produce lethal results. It’s a film about being trapped, about a complete dissonance between predator and prey: as the victims in horror cinema so often do, these young adults plead and beg when given the chance, and the blind man rejects their terror with total indifference. If horror is founded predominantly on affect, on the triggering of its audience’s physical reactions, then Don’t Breathe performs its job with ease. The audience in my theater reacted audibly and consistently to its suspense-ramping and explosions of physical violence. And there’s something to be said for the simple articulation of fear. In addressing the horror fiction of Stephen King, Douglas E. Winter writes that “horror fiction is [. . .] an intrinsically subversive art, which seeks the face of reality by striking through the pasteboard masks of appearance. That the lifting of the mask may reveal the face of the boogeyman is our existential dilemma: the eternal tension between doubt and relief that will haunt us to our grave” (Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King). Don’t Breathe indeed strikes through the pasteboard mask of appearance. The face that hides underneath isn’t smiling; in fact, if you look close enough, you’ll probably notice that it has fangs.
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Note: Images are screenshots taken from freely available trailers on YouTube.