Horror movies have grown increasingly lazier these days with their dependence on jump-scares to terrify audiences. As the exception to this rule, “Don’t Breathe” (**** OUT OF ****) shuns jump-scares for a frightening storyline. “Evil Dead” writer & director Fede Alvarez and co-scripter Rodo Sayagues have created a superior, spine-tingling saga of suspense, sparse on dialogue, but swarming with surprises that will make your skin crawl throughout its tense 88 minutes. Mind you, one of those standard-issue scary movie tropes remains intact in this gripping, atmospheric opus. Nevertheless, you’ll experience as much paranoia as our protagonists who find themselves trapped and terrorized in this home invasion thriller. The set-up is incredibly simple. Three teens have a foolproof plan for burglary. Equipped with the security codes and ways to silence alarms, these three should be prepared to steal something of value. A golden opportunity lands in their laps. Not only do they have a chance to score drastically with one big haul, but they may also never have to resort to crime again! Not-surprisingly, things begin to go dreadfully sideways almost immediately. They have learned about a blind military veteran, injured by grenade splinters in Iraq, who lives alone in a secluded derelict neighborhood and has a million dollars stashed in a safe. If the burglars, two single guys and a single-mom with a kindergarten aged daughter, can pull this off, they will be on easy street. Just as it all seems to be within their grasp, they encounter their worst nightmare. If you’ve seen the trailer for “Don’t Breathe,” you may have been reminded of the climactic scene in “Silence of the Lambs” when an FBI agent stumbled around in the dark while a serial killer equipped with night vision goggles stalked her relentlessly in a creepy house. “Don’t Breathe” appropriates that predicament, but expands it radically. Alvarez and Sayagues display imagination galore in this claustrophobic cat and mouse nail-biter, and the suspense never slackens, even after you think that the filmmakers have run out of tricks to torment you.
Alex (Dylan Minnette of “Goosebumps”) takes advantage of inside information from his father’s security firm so that Rocky (Jane Levy of “Nobody Walks”), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto of “It Follows”), and he can burglarize houses with little chance of being caught. They have an amazing track record, and they haven’t botched up any of these opportunities. “Don’t Breathe” opens with our youthful protagonists rampaging through an affluent house pilfering whatever they find of value. Meantime, the most desperate member of the threesome is Rocky who lives with her abusive mother and struggles to raise an adorable daughter who doesn’t have a clue about how amoral her mother is. Alex has a thing for Rocky, and Money struggles jealously to keep his accomplice in line. Later, Money stumbles onto information from the guy that he fences stolen items to that an individual in a remote, virtually unpopulated, Detroit suburb keeps a million dollars in cash squirreled away in his apartment. Our unsavory protagonists carry out surveillance on the neighborhood and are surprised when they spot the so-called ‘The Blind Man’ (Stephen Lang of “Avatar”) out in the daylight exercising his pet Rottweiler. When they determine that their victim is in fact sightless, they cannot wait to break into his residence. Initially, they put the Blind Man’s pugnacious pooch to sleep in its dog house with a smoky concoction. Nevertheless, gaining entrance to the house proves to be difficult. Indeed, Rocky manages to climb in through a high window. Once the three gain entrance, Money unleashes a crude form of knock-out gas on the slumbering Blind Man to prevent him from interfering with them during the burglary.
Unfortunately, despite all of his bravado, Money cannot muster the nerve to pull the trigger on his automatic pistol when the Blind Man catches them by surprise during a harrowing moment. Alex and Rocky are just as shocked by the Blind Man’s startling appearance and struggle to hold their breath and stand rooted like statures while the Blind Man kills Money. Eventually, Alex and Rocky manage to hide themselves, with Rocky taking refuge in a closet. She is shocked when the Blind Man enters the closet where she has holed up, but watches in triumph as he opens a safe and inventories the contents. As traumatized as she is by the sudden reversal of events, Rocky decides that she isn’t going to leave the house without the loot. She memorizes the digital combination and later cleans out the safe. Alex and her struggle to escape from the Blind Man’s house. What might seem like a simple proposition turns out to be an ordeal. The menacing but resourceful Blind Man knows every square inch of his house, and he has it rigged up so nobody can possibly escape. Our protagonists had to go to extraordinary lengths just to effect an entrance, and they discover that getting themselves out is going to be virtually impossible.
Now, based on this plot synopsis, you’d think “Don’t Breathe” might degenerate into a predictable blood and gore potboiler, but you’d be entirely wrong. Discretion prevents me from providing greater details about the plot. Some of the complications will have you poised on the edge of your seat with your white-knuckled fists clenching the armrests of your chair. Furthermore, by this time, you may not be as well-disposed about the welfare of the trespassers, since their selfish motives and apparent advantage over the Blind Man him make him appear more sympathetic. Not only do things get more complicated, but the action also takes a truly bizarre twist that you won’t foresee. Ultimately, the Blind Man turns the tables on his sighted adversaries, extinguishing all forms of illumination, so they wind up on equal footing with him. Stephen Lang is terrific as the Blind Man who never knows when to quit, while Jane Levy looks suitably horrified by some of the predicaments in which she finds herself. “Don’t Breathe” will keep you gasping.