Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Films of 2016: Don't Breathe

Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe (2016) is an exceedingly well-made, modern-day spin on Wes Craven’s 1991 horror film, The People under the Stairs, at least in some crucial ways. 

In both films, for instance, the protagonists are home invaders -- criminals -- who choose to rob a home during an economically unstable time.

The People under the Stairs is set in the Bush Era recession of the early 1990s, the immediate fall-out from Reaganomics. Don’t Breathe is set in modern day Detroit, following a slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008.

As one might expect -- especially given our contemporary culture’s demand for ever-more realism and grit in its entertainment -- Don’t Breathe eschews some of the more elaborate, fantastic flourishes found in The People under the Stairs.  The Craven film purposefully threads-in elements of fairy tale storytelling. Don’t Breathe is a dose of grim, inescapable reality.

Despite the differing styles, both films invert the “home invasion” sub-genre in the same manner. They each concern a scenario in which the danger is not directed at a homeowner from a robber, as one expects. Instead, the danger is to the robbers from homeowners.  

A vicious dog plays an important role in both films too, and each production also features scenes of protagonists making their way through the under-structure/interior of the house; behind the walls, so-to-speak.  In both films, this progression through the dark house mirrors a progression from surface reality, to underlying reality. We move past surfaces to understand, more plainly, the truth of things.

The comparison here to The People under the Stairs is not meant as an insult or put-down, just a reflection of horror film history.  I want to make that distinction plain because Don’t Breathe is one of the best horror films of 2016, despite the familiarity of some key concepts or elements. Fede Alvarez also directed the commendable Evil Dead remake of 2013, and between these two films he has demonstrated both how to execute effective jump scares and -- more significantly -- how to tap into a sense of existential or cerebral horror.

Don't Breathe is a tense, surprising, and wholly terrifying viewing experience that serves the noblest purpose that horror art can undertake. 

It tells us something significant about the times we live in.

“Some things you can’t change, no matter how unfair they are.”

Desperate to leave Detroit for California, and to find a good home for her young daughter,  single mother Rocky (Jane Levy) joins with fellow home invaders -- Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) -- to rob a house in a near-abandoned neighborhood.

A blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) lives in an old house there, and apparently has $300,000 dollars stashed in a safe somewhere.  Although the house is guarded by a fierce dog, the promise of the seed money to start a new life is too much for Rocky to ignore.

One night, the trio breaks into the Blind Man’s house, but almost immediately things begin to go wrong. The Blind Man is no easy target, and is both physically strong, and cunning.  He manages to disarm and kill Money, leaving Alex and Rocky with few alternatives to defeat him, or escape.

They seek shelter in the house’s basement, only to find that the Blind Man is even more nefarious and sinister than they imagined. He is hiding a terrible secret downstairs, one involving the accident that took his young daughter’s life.

“You have to be held accountable.”

In my introduction, above, I noted some surface similarities between Don’t Breathe and The People under the Stairs. There are more of them to consider, as well.  

For one thing, both films seem to share a philosophy in terms of naming characters. Somehow, names embody aspects of the character journey, or their very nature.

The protagonist of the Craven film is “Fool,” which describes his apparent role in the break-in, at least according to Tarot Cards.  Fool is hunted in the film by the home-owners, who are identified simply as “Man” and “Woman.”  One of the children under the stairs is named “Roach,” an indicator of his place in the power-structure of the insane home.

Similarly, Don’t Breathe’s protagonist is “Rocky,” a descriptor which suggests her path towards financial freedom in the film, for sure.  

Rocky goes up against “The Blind Man,” which is another generic sounding name (like "Man" or "Woman.") This violent, perverted home-owner hides secrets in his abode.  He is blind both literally and in terms of his soul.  He can't see that he has become a monster.

And finally, the worst and most immoral of the three robbers is known as “Money,” a name which is a perfect crystallization of all he is, all he holds dear. He’s all about the money, no matter what. Money, the character, has no sense of morality above taking care of himself.  He doesn't see right and wrong.  He only sees what he can take, what he can get.

It’s fascinating too, how the films chart similar epochs in recent American history, both gazing at the country in eras of economic recession and blight. 

Don’t Breathe gains significant power from the choice to set the film in Detroit. We see chain-link fences, for example, and once-suburban streets that now resemble a post-apocalyptic landscape.  The Blind Man’s street is described as being in the part of the town that looks “like a dump.” The homes there are in disrepair. Windows are board up. There's no money to tend to these houses as they rot and decay. 

The setting works for the film in two important ways.  

First, as one of the robbers notes, it is isolating.  Money, Alex and Rockey see it as a sign that they won’t be caught, or seen, robbing the house.  In truth, they are missing an important point.  There’s no help nearby for them to turn to when they are endangered.  Now, a street in Detroit is not a sleep-away camp in the woods, or an outpost on another planet, but -- as we see here -- it’s a place that is far removed from community and safety.

Similarly, the location helps us understand fully the desperation of the characters. The world seems to have forgotten about this city. Rocky’s mother crudely suggests, for example, that her daughter must be hustling blow jobs on the street, since she’s making money.  

In other words, there aren’t many legal, socially-upstanding ways, apparently, to survive here, post-Recession.  Ironically, I’ve read reviews of the film on the Internet wherein people wrote: “how can we sympathize with people who decide to rob houses?”

Well, seeing where these young adults live, and experiencing the desperation Rocky feels to free her daughter from this environment, a more appropriate question might be how can we not sympathize with these people?  

Desperate times require people to take desperate acts; acts they would not even consider under normal circumstances.

Commendably, Don’t Breathe doesn’t entirely let the characters off the hook for their respective choices, either.  Sam Raimi produced this film, and so it shares a concept with many of his own efforts in the genre.  

What is that idea?

Those who transgress, must pay for that trangression.

As one character notes, we all “must be held accountable.”  

However, different people have very different notions of what being accountable actually means.  

Rocky and Alex discover a horrible secret in the Blind Man’s basement.  In the absence of societal law and order, he has imposed his own sense of “law” over a young woman, Cindy Roberts (Franceska Torocsik), whom he feels transgressed against him, and got off, scot-free.  When Rocky is captured, the Blind Man attempts to punish her with this same judgment, and his "sentence" makes for one of the most horrifying moments in the film.

I find the moment so horrible not only because of the dreadful promise of sexual violence, but because his judgment is all about powerlessness, which seems to be a key tenet/theme of the film, and a commentary, indeed on where America is right now as a nation.

The Blind Man straps Rocky to a harness, lifts her in the air, cuts open her pants, and attempts to inseminate/impregnate her using a turkey baster. As we watch the horrific scene unfold, we realize that she is suspended, bound, and entirely without options. She can’t fight back. There is no power with which to do so.  

The whole movie is about Rocky attempting, in some way, to exercise power in her life. To change her life so she is never trapped in this situation of powerlessness again. Or so her daughter never feels the same powerlessness she has experienced. And now here she is, because of her choice (to rob someone) trapped all over again.

We may not approve of Rocky’s choice to rob a house to gain power, but we can understand it. The Blind Man wants to hold her accountable for her decision, but she must wonder why the system has never been held accountable, or why the rich have never been held accountable. 

Don’t Breathe even makes note, regarding Cindy, that “rich girls don’t go to jail,” a comment on "affluenza", and the fact that in addition to elections, the judicial system feels rigged, at least for some people.  Justice is unequal.

In short, Don’t Breathe offers some timely commentary about the state of our great nation in 2016.  It is never preachy, but in addition to being incredibly tense and suspenseful, the film is unerringly smart.  

The action is riveting, and the Blind Man is a terrifying figure, the “last man standing” in a community destroyed by economic failures.  He too does what he must to get justice, but the absence of a community to monitor him and his excesses has made him a draconian sort of monster.

I started this review with a comparison between Don’t Breathe and The People under the Stairs.  The latter film, directed so brilliantly by Craven, is about how a house or person can look normal on the outside, but be dominated by dysfunction inside.  

Don’t Breathe’s creative formula is slightly different. It tells us that when society gives up on a place, the people stuck there -- in a city or town -- have to live by a new set of rules if they hope to survive.

From our relative comfort -- outside the imperiled community and far away -- we can judge their actions as immoral or wrong   But those who live there, day in and day out, can’t spare the breath to be philosophical about such things.  They don’t breathe. They must act.

Rocky and the Blind Man are alike in some important sense because they both have chosen to respond to the powerlessness the world has handed them.  They are both survivors in a trying time.


  1. Just when I think Horror is dead, these guys come along and give us this and the The Evil Dead remake. Maybe we have hope.

  2. Excellent analysis of this horror. The rape scene with the turkey baster of the female character is horrific in it's description and so troubling that I will not seek to view this film.

    "The People under the Stairs is set in the Bush Era recession of the early 1990s, the immediate fall-out from Reaganomics. Don’t Breathe(2016) is set in modern day Detroit, following a slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008." the eighth year of the Obama Administration. Since it is set in 2016, it is only fair that the eight years of the Obama Era's economics policies are mentioned too.


  3. I gave this movie a pass. I may rethink that.

  4. Mariano5:29 PM

    I thought the little girl was Rocky's sister, not her daughter. Seems I have to pay more attention.