Hidden Frights in Horror Films: Don’t Breathe
Fede Alvarez’s latest film, Don’t Breathe, has received an enormous amount of attention. Part of this is because it took in more than $152 million in box office, an amount that was a massive increase over its $9.9 million budget. Those who were skeptical of how well Alvarez, who directed the 2013 Evil Dead remake, would succeed with an original project (he co-wrote the script with Rodo Sayagues) should have any doubts erased.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
The core plot of Don’t Breathe involves a trio of young criminals who specialize in breaking and entering. The woman, Rocky, takes the homeowner’s expensive jewelry, clothes, and shoes; her paramour, Money, marks his territory by pissing all over the floor of the living room in a way that makes it look like he’s ejaculating. The third member of the group, Alex, is also the third wheel; he’s not-so-secretly in love with Rocky yet he’s essential to the group’s existence because it’s his father’s home security system job which allows them to break into the houses without setting off alarms.
Yet as soon as we get a glimpse of Rocky’s home life we feel more empathy for her plight. She lives with her alcoholic mother and younger sister Diddy in a Detroit trailer park, frustrated because her mother’s unemployed neo-Nazi boyfriend seems to have moved in without anyone asking her permission. Rocky’s plan is to steal enough money to make a break for California with Diddy and Money; considering her situation, one can hardly fault her for having goals.
This is the Detroit of Lost River, Only Lovers Left Alive, and It Follows, a decrepit city bloated with overgrown lawns and blighted houses. This is a place where a lack of viable options means you must make your own luck, and if it involves stealing $300K in cash from the home of a blind Army vet, then so be it.
Don’t Breathe is also a home invasion thriller, so we know that things are going to go very wrong. Underestimating your opponent is the downfall of many characters in home invasion films, especially when the underestimating is done by the invaders themselves. The Army vet in question might be blind, but he’s not dumb. He turns the tables on the trio and things quickly escalate (or descend into chaos, depending on your point of view) from there. Money is the first to die but it’s hard to fault The Blind Man or defending himself and his home.
Some of the best horror movies traffic in the premise that someone who appears to be the initial villain of the film isn’t actually the big boss. Don’t Breathe twists this premise in on itself, unraveling the scares thread by thread. It’s a nice change from those tiresome horror films that front-load the narrative and leave audiences bored as the final act of the film approaches. Don’t Breathe’s method of saving its most viscerally frightening segment until after an hour has passed is no small achievement, especially for a film that clocks in at 88 minutes in length. By keeping the suspense consistent and constantly increasing the stakes, when the big reveal shows up, we are fully invested in what’s going to become of Rocky and Alex.
The $300K that the trio wants to steal ends up being closer to a million dollars, but what’s more significant is the reason The Blind Man even has the money in the first place. His daughter was killed in a car accident a few years back and he accepted a settlement from the wealthy family of the driver (a young woman named Cindy Roberts), but apparently, that wasn’t enough. As Rocky and Alex discover, he has also kidnapped Roberts and keeps her trussed up in the basement with a gag over her mouth. Horrified, Rocky insists that they have to save Roberts. When she and Alex try to escape with her in tow, things spin even more out of control and The Blind Man accidentally shoots and kills her. Mysteriously enraged by this discovery, he punches Rocky into unconsciousness in a scene that is rather difficult to watch, but is merely a harbinger of what’s to come.
Rocky awakes to find herself trussed up like Roberts but it isn’t just vengeance that The Blind Man has on his mind. He explains how he’d impregnated Roberts, planning to let her go but keep the baby, a form of retribution that is far more important to him than the money. To Rocky’s horror (and the audience’s), he explains that she’ll have to take the place of the now-dead Roberts. Seeing this spelled out might make the act seem almost cartoonishly evil, but in the film it’s genuinely scary, especially when The Blind Man cuts through Rocky’s pants and underwear with a pair of scissors and takes out a turkey baster full of his semen, even as he insists that he didn’t force himself on Roberts and he’s not a rapist.
Thankfully, Alex, who everyone assumed was dead at this point, busts in to attack The Blind Man and free Rocky, who then kicks the shit out of her would-be kidnapper/rapist in a scene that is undeniably powerful, akin to Lisbeth Salander’s revenge on her own rapist in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. If you didn’t empathize with Rocky before, you certainly do now.
When so many horror films use rape as a lazy plot device or way to develop a character, the violation in Don’t Breathe feels surprisingly well-considered, in part because the fact that Rocky is almost raped doesn’t define her as a person. Even though the circumstances surrounding it are not typical, it feels more grounded in reality than movies that rely on rape as an empty signifier of violence when any other violent act would suffice. The attempted rape, although shocking, was subtly telegraphed early on through Money’s earlier faux-ejaculation and his casual reference to Rocky as “my bitch;” it seems he wasn’t much further evolved than her mother’s pathetic boyfriend.
The gradual escalation in Don’t Breathe makes us realize how sexism is so insidious that the threat of being demeaned or even raped seems to lurk around every dark corner, and that misogyny is all about control.