'Don't Breathe' Is Brutal And Insane And Silly And Everything You Want In A Midnight Movie [SXSW Review]

Don't Breathe revives one of the horror genre's most convenient tropes: what happens when a group of genuinely rotten characters find themselves up against someone so much worse? It's like a get-out-jail-free card for any filmmaker with a nasty streak, as they can proceed to punish the lead characters in unfathomable ways without asking the audience to feel too guilty for relishing in their suffering.

And director Fede Alvarez lays that suffering on with a heavy brush. Once Don't Breathe finds its rhythm, it becomes one of the most relentless horror movies in recent memory, a non-stop assault that finds that fine line between crowd-pleasing and shit-your-pants terrifying. Alvarez already showed horror fans that he wasn't kidding around with his vicious 2013 Evil Dead remake, but Don't Breathe is his and his alone, proof that his brand of intensity can operate when removed from a beloved franchise.

The premise here is simple enough: three young criminals who scrape by through regular breaking and entering gigs stumble across the "one last job" that will allow them to escape from Detroit (presented as appropriately apocalyptic) and move to greener pastures. All they have to do is break into a blind man's house and make off with the fortune he has stashed away.

But they picked the wrong blind man to piss off and things do not go well for anyone.

The screenplay, written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, takes a little too long to get down to business, building the motivations of the hoodlum anti-heroes on a mountain of cliches. Once the film gets down the brass tacks and moves the action inside that house, Don't Breathe starts to shine. The film is practically one sustained terror sequence, constructed out of ingeniously conceived and staged action beats that will elicit cheers and gasps and squirms from the right kind of audience.

Don't Breathe has more in common with the wave of brutal European horror movies that began arriving in the early '00s than your typical American studio-released film. This is unapologetically mean-spirited filmmaking that seeks to punish its characters and push the audience into unpleasant corners. Whether you embrace the darkness and let this gore-lubricated rollercoaster take you for a ride or turn away in disgust is between you and your movie God. Alvarez isn't kidding around and he's not aiming to please the casual horror fan. He wants to rattle the veterans.

And it's hard to argue with the results. Alvarez is a gifted technical filmmaker – his grimy, heavily stylized aesthetic recalls the work of early David Fincher and his playful set-ups and pay-offs feel like Hitchcock if he was reincarnated and weened on '80s slasher films. In a genre populated by filmmakers who go through the motions, Alvarez has laid the gauntlet. He has a voice, a loud one, and a razor sharp row of teeth.

Don't Breathe is also something of an Evil Dead reunion, with Jane Levy once again allowing Alvarez to put her through the wringer. As far as modern scream queens go, her Rocky (easily the most interesting of the three thieves) is effective: tough, ferocious, and capable of absorbing copious amounts of punishment. But this is Stephen Lang's show and he leaves his mark as the absolute last blind man you ever want to underestimate. Future trailers may spoil the nature of Lang's performance, but this review is being written before a single frame has played outside of SXSW and it feels unfair to say much more.

For adventurous horror fans, Don't Breathe is required watching. Alvarez isn't going anywhere. But like Evil Dead, it ultimately feels less than the sum of its parts – individual scenes are brilliant and one sequence involving a close encounter in a small car is grim slapstick at its best, but the film rarely rises above being just a fun ride. When it does pause to action to take a breather (pun intended) in the home stretch, the film threatens to fly off the rails entirely with a series of revelations that are too gross and too silly, even within this film's nightmarish universe. You want to grab the film by the lapels and scream "I get it! You're really mean and really gross!"

There's a confidence on display in Don't Breathe that's lacking in most modern horror movies. This is a movie that wants to hurt you, to punch you in the gut and steal your breath. Sometimes you just need a horror film to leave you with a bloody nose.

/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10