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Review: ‘Don’t Breathe’ (2016) – High Risk Recession Horror

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Review: 'Don't Breathe' (2016) - High Risk Recession Horror

“Recession Horror” sounds like the kind of thing out-of-touch academics write about. These are the same people who’ve coined “Elevated Horror,” itself a phrase that undermines art in horror, creating division within the genre and unfairly deriding other horror deemed unworthy of the stamp. But “Recession Horror” can be used to describe the elements of a movie, instead of its critical merits.  Just like “Slasher Movie” or “Zombie Movie,” “Recession Horror” can be a term used to identify the particulars in a cycle of films. For instance, desolate, poverty-stricken landscapes are a perfect backdrop for scary stories. Deserted by the government, lacking in infrastructure and ignored by the police, these living ghost towns are terrifying characters in their own right. You don’t need chainsaw lunatics when manufacturing has disappeared and left people unsupported and unable to thrive. Scarier even than the environment is the fact that the disenfranchised and desperate are abandoned by the same indifferent government that has driven their jobs overseas. These are real people, with real needs, and their experiences increasingly cast a shadow over what was once the American Dream. This shadow deserves to be taken seriously as a source for mythology. 

Fede Alvarez’s 2016 Don’t Breathe is to this new subgenre what Night of the Living Dead is to zombie movies. It’s given us a shining example of what could become an entirely new type of horror entirely. Full of gore and surprises, it’s nonetheless a horror of and for the time it is set in. The tale is timeless, but make no mistake: this is as post-2008 economic collapse as movies get. The conflict is inseparable from its particular setting in space and history. The only other decade this movie could have existed in is the 1930s, during America’s Great Depression.

Don’t Breathe, set entirely in Detroit, Michigan, is in its first fifteen minutes not unlike Eminem’s origin story in 8 Mile. So similar is the set design that you might expect Slim Shady himself to wander through the frame at any moment. Our protagonist Rocky (Evil Dead 2009’s Jane Levy) is, ostensibly, not a battle rapper and must therefore rely on other means to raise herself from poverty. She and her younger sister fantasize about beach days in the California of their dreams, but the cards they’ve been dealt find them living instead with their awful mother and mom’s junky boyfriend. But nothing can keep Rocky’s aspirations at bay; she’s aching for her version of the American Dream she’s been robbed of. So since Rocky’s dreams were stolen from her when Detroit collapsed, she and her friends Money and Alex turn to robbery to make their living. Slow money might be better than no money, but for her dreams to come true, Rocky needs to up her game. Things seem to be looking up when the crew is tipped off to a house holding a fortune.

Don’t Breathe 2018 Image 2

Rocky, Alex and Money are experts of the burglary game. Alex’s dad is a real estate agent, and his access to keys and alarm codes has fueled their past successes. So when it comes time for their biggest heist yet, the gang of three know to stake out the house and observe what goes on inside. Luckily for them (at least at first), the house is alone on its street, surrounded by abandoned houses for blocks in every direction. Better yet, the sole inhabitant is a blind man, the house’s owner and the single benefactor of a sizable settlement. The man, a veteran of foreign war, was granted $300,000 by the court after his daughter was struck and killed in a vehicular accident.

If things seem too good to be true, it’s because they are, as the gang learns immediately upon entering the blind man’s house. For starters, he’s not alone in there; the man owns a vicious rottweiler, and Rocky, Alex and Money need to act fast if they don’t want to end up dog food. Conflict between the three bandits also presents itself right away when it’s revealed that Alex might have feelings for Rocky, who for now is Money’s girlfriend. All these problems pale in comparison to the threat posed by the blind man himself, and the things they learn about him are even scarier than a home invasion. One particular sequence draws immediate parallels to the climax of Silence of the Lambs, and is able to create just as much tension as its Oscar-winning predecessor. While the plot and the characters’ desires seem simple enough, the twists and turns are where this movie really succeeds. One shocking revelation in particular, along with all of its implications, elevates Don’t Breathe from popcorn fodder to a true masterpiece.

To discuss any further what happens would risk some very serious spoilers. It’s rare that a movie could contain such a major plot twist but still be so entirely rewatchable. And with its tight 88-minute runtime, Don’t Breathe is an incredibly lean thrill-ride, turning its title into a command for the audience. Don’t breathe. Don’t blink. Don’t get up to go to the bathroom. You won’t be able to peel your eyes from the screen, so make sure that your hour and twenty-eight minute viewing goes uninterrupted.

At the time this article was written, the sequel Don’t Breathe 2 has just finished shooting and is about to enter post-production. The original is available to rent or purchase on major streaming services like Apple TV, Amazon and Vudu. Leave a comment below if you feel any other movies fit the “Recession Horror” subgenre!

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