Home invasion shocker Don’t Breathe ‘is steeped in both the best and the worst grindhouse tendencies’ says MacDara Conroy

It’s impossible to talk about Don’t Breathe without referencing That Twist. Nothing more will be given away here, but the pivot in this nifty little thriller from the promise of a smart inversion of tired home-invasion horror tropes to something, well, quite different is central to any criticism, and really where it succeeds or fails as a worthy exercise in contemporary genre filmmaking.

It’s not the first time director Fede Álverez has invited such contention. The Uruguayan’s debut feature, 2013’s ballyhooed remake of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, seemed to split audiences between the gorehounds who lapped up the extreme effects set-pieces, and everyone else who glazed over at the annoying, unlikeable characters, and the bleak gruesomeness of it all, compounded by the absence of the original’s blackly humorous streak.

It’s pleasing to say the same criticisms can’t be levelled at Don’t Breathe, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. While this taut, claustrophobic shocker – which also has the backing of Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures – represents a marked improvement in pace and tone on his previous film, it’s fair to say Álvarez is steeped in both the best and the worst grindhouse tendencies.

The best is demonstrated in the first 45 minutes, as a motley trio of cunning burglars – wannabe gangster Money (Daniel Zovato), thoughtful Alex (Dylan Minnette) and put-upon single mom Rocky (Jane Levy, looking a lot more like a young Reese Witherspoon than she did in Evil Dead) – plot their One Big Score to escape the hell of recession-addled Detroit. Their quarry is a retired war veteran (Stephen Lang), the last holdout in a ghost town, who’s sitting on a stash of cash from a settlement after the wrongful death of his daughter.

Stephen Lang in Don't Breathe

Casing the gutted neighbourhood, the gang discover the old man is blind; the job’s surely a cinch now. But getting into the house proves tougher than expected: there are too many locks on the front door, there’s a hungry Rottweiler in the side passage. And while their mark might be without sight, they soon learn he has an uncanny knack for moving around in the dark, enough to turn the tables on his would-be invaders.

That’s where Don’t Breathe is at its best, when the hunted becomes the hunter, and our loyalties as an audience are truly torn between a grieving father who just wants to be left in peace as the city decays around him, and the sympathetic larcenists driven to their crime by the worst possible circumstances. It’s unbearably tense, and undoubtedly thrilling.

But then That Twist happens, and Álvarez’s film loses the courage of its convictions, recasting our protagonists into all too familiar roles, while ramping up the discomfort with a combination of sexualised horror and lizard-brain revulsion. There are some flashes of brilliance, such as a terrifying pursuit through a blacked-out cellar, dilated pupils captured in monochrome night vision. And there’s a nod to Cujo in the final moments hinting at one of many flea-pit, drive-in influences. But once the film crosses that line, and the sleaze factor takes hold, it loses too much of what’s uniquely thrilling and even thought-provoking about its superlative first half.

Had it gone a different route, we could be talking about a modern classic. I suppose Álvarez – and regular screenwriting partner Rodo Sayagues – should get some kudos for almost getting it right this time. But I won’t be holding my breath for round three.

Don’t Breathe opens nationwide on Friday September 9th