Don't Breathe film

DON'T BREATHE and summer 2016’s atmosphere revival

Monday, September 05, 2016 Rob Samuelson

The movies that scare the most are the ones that highlight suspense. Jump scares -- whether they are fake-outs like bread popping out of a toaster or a knife-wielding maniac popping out of the shadows -- work in the moment they happen, but they fade as soon as that moment is complete. The viewer’s nerves may take a moment to collect themselves, but for the most part a sense of normalcy returns quickly -- a sense of safety, too. The horror films that got the most traction in the summer of 2016 seemed to understand this better than many other entries in their genre. This made the summer’s frightening offerings long on memorable atmosphere and short on fleeting scares. They made you squirm.

Photo credit: Don't Breathe/Facebook

None of these releases -- Don’t Breathe, Lights Out, and The Conjuring 2 -- were perfect in this regard. In fact, two of them were mediocre films. But their mediocrity stemmed from narrative dysfunction or character work that was less than ideal. Those flaws diminish the overall effect because they mean the films don’t offer the whole package of moviegoing. But when it came to the nuts and bolts of using a camera, lights, shadows, and positioning of people and objects within a frame, each movie did a decent to great job. And that is something to celebrate.

We’ll move backwards from the last true summer horror option, Don’t Breathe. It could well be the worst of the bunch in the grand scheme of things because of its limp setups for its house burgling protagonists (Suburgatory’s Jane Levy, Lost’s Dylan Minnette, and It Follows’ Daniel Zovatto) and its rash choice to make its villain, a blind U.S. Army veteran played by Stephen Lang (Avatar), a truly heinous and evil man. At its best, before a mid-film reveal of the blind man’s intentions, Don’t Breathe lives in a juicy moral grey zone of placing rooting interest in criminals and making light of the icky implications “stand your ground” laws (who is the real villain in that scenario?). It throws that away by upping the villainy of Lang’s character.

But that’s a narrative problem (it also adores the use of deus ex machina savior moments and fake-out deaths, which get old in a hurry). Director Fede Alvarez, who also co-wrote the script with Rodo Sayagues, excels in turning a rundown shack of a home in a rough area of Detroit into a house of horrors. Alvarez takes his time setting up the geography and atmosphere of the house, with its many locked doors, its cache of potential weapons (gardening equipment, hammers, boards of wood, loaded handguns, etc.), and its three floors of places to hide once the blind man (who often displays how capable he is of taking human life when he is threatened) realizes that he has to deal with a trio of burglars intent on robbing his well stocked safe.

Alvarez uses the blind man’s disability to his filmmaking advantage by toying with the soundtrack. Because the antagonist’s other senses are heightened, every whisper threatens to give away a hard-fought place of safety. The act of breathing, as implied by the movie’s title, is as deadly as not taking any oxygen in at all. In the movie’s most thrilling setpiece, Alvarez turns out the lights on the burglars, who must root around in the dark (we can see them via night vision cameras) while Lang’s hulking presence looms over them. He is used to the dark, obviously, but his opponents are not. The tension and suspense is superb, even if the release of that tension lacks total satisfaction. But hey, we’ll always have the night vision sequence.

Photo credit: Lights Out/Facebook

Lights Out, released in July, avoided the real world all together. Its villain was a supernatural shadow woman named Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey) who terrorized Rebecca (Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies), her half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman), and their mother (Maria Bello, Prime Suspect) over decades in a mental illness allegory. Like Don’t Breathe, Lights Out is a motion picture with immense narrative issues, but its central conceit -- and how its tensest scenes execute that conceit -- is frighteningly beautiful. The shadow woman appears closer and closer each time a light source goes out, dims, or changes direction. Her malevolent presence hangs over every moment. Director David F. Sandberg turns Diana into the fear that one’s family history is on the verge of catching up with them. In this case, it’s mental illness, but it can work for anything from alcoholism to cancer to baldness. Diana will get you no matter who you are. The fact that Sandberg and screenwriter Eric Heisserer demystify Diana by explaining her away does not change how frightening it is in the moment to see one’s greatest fears marching inevitably toward them.

Summer 2016’s horror crown jewel was The Conjuring 2, which combined mastery of film’s formal elements with a story that held together and characters that feel resoundingly real. Director James Wan continued his run of 2010s pop moviemaking greatness with this story of the paranormal investigating wife and husband team, Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), heading to England to solve the case of a downtrodden family’s haunted house. Toys become gross and twisted manifestations of evil, children levitate, and the world’s most fearsome nun terrorizes everyone in the home. But more than that, its portrait of two different kinds of loving families -- the English single mother doing her best for her kids despite all the supernatural complications thrown in their way and the whitebread hokiness of the mutual care between Lorraine and Ed -- is what makes the movie a powerful one beyond the atmospheric fright.

Photo credit: The Conjuring/Facebook

But that atmosphere is the thing that sells tickets, and Wan is quite the sales person. He makes The Conjuring 2 (and its 2013 precursor) the gold standard in how to set up a cinematic space. The trick is that Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess take a lot of time to roam around the haunted house. They track down hallways, up stairs, around corners, covering each nook and cranny of the house. Paint is peeling here, portraits of the now-broken family are falling off the walls there, a tattered brown chair creaks in the living room, and the basement is flooding due to a backup of potentially supernatural origin -- or maybe it’s just bad piping and the family just can’t afford to fix it. The house feels like a real place audience members have visited. When things start going paranormally haywire, a viewer’s eyes are trained to know exactly where to look. It may not be visible, but there is something terrible waiting in one of those corners, and the collective heart rate of the audience steadily rises until it’s almost unbearable. It is at that point when Wan unleashes the jump scare. It is marvelously effective.

Directors like Alvarez and Sandberg “get it” in a visceral way. They are so skilled at depicting the environmental aspects of fear that sometimes the other parts of successful filmmaking are left behind to only serve the scares. Even still, they are on the right path for the best kind of horror filmmaking. Throw in a little more of Wan’s ability to create characters and stories that are not so narratively clunky and we’ll really be in business.

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