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How Horror Got Its Groove Back

"Don't Breathe" lives up to the title



Growing up, I thought it was really easy to make a horror movie. Just a few gallons of blood, a tall chap in a mask with something sharp, some screaming teenagers running around hoping for the best, and you're good. Sadly, as I've gotten older I've needed a bit more from my horror films. Don't get me wrong, slasher films are still my boo—but now, if there are characters to care about, some nice camera work and a script that doesn't think I'm stupid, the film transcends the genre completely.

There is even a term for it now. It's called "Elevated Horror," and "Don't Breathe" fits the bill nicely. It's incredibly condescending to the genre to basically say that if the film is well made, acted and written, it's "elevated," but I've long since stopped expecting horror to get the respect it deserves.

"Don't Breathe" elevates the genre simply by inverting everything we come to expect from horror. Technically, it's "home invasion" horror, but instead of following the terrified occupants of the home, our heroes are the invaders.

Rocky, her boyfriend Money, and her best friend Alex have been robbing houses, mostly so Rocky can escape horrific Detroit with her little sister to get away from her awful home life. The three youngsters break into the house of an old blind man who is supposed to have around $300K in cash somewhere on the premises. However, the blind man has a few secrets in his well-protected home, and he will kill anyone who threatens that secret. As the kids find themselves deeper in the house and start uncovering the sinister layers of the old blind man, the film veers sharply away from thriller territory and deep into the land of horror.

The sound design and direction of the film are almost perfect. Once things kick off and the blind man is aware of their presence, the film doesn't ease up for a moment. The tension escalates so flawlessly that every creak of a floorboard or rustle of clothing becomes another reason to grip the armrests tighter. Normally when a horror movie really works, it's because of escalation and how intense the final 10 minutes or so become, but the entire final hour of "Don't Breathe" is absolutely grueling.

There is a set-piece in the film where the blind man has two of the thieves in his basement and turns out all of the lights, stalking them in the darkness that he's used to. The camera dances through the room in beautiful black and white night-vision photography, showing us our poor heroes as they edge closer to the unbalanced man with the gun. It's a bravura sequence that was so tense that I found myself holding my breath for long stretches of time.

Whether horror is elevated or not, the genre deserves respect because it's the only one that goes after our lizard brain. Paying someone $12 to scare the crap out of us should seem counter-intuitive, but it's actually fun—that primal sense of safe danger. "Don't Breathe" peeked inside my lizard brain and laughed at my fear. Shut up and take my money.

"Don't Breathe"

Dir. Fede Alvarez

Grade: A-

Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX

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