By Alan Pyke
Horror flicks have their own language, a special set of visual tools and plot mechanics. To construct a good one, filmmakers have to be selective about which tools to pick up and which to leave hanging on the workshop wall.
Each of those choices is shaped in advance by audience expectation. Horror audiences tend to be simultaneously demanding and forgiving. They know the workshop pretty well and they want to see somebody do something cool in it without cheating too much.
Michael Myers is going to get up again – sure as Chumbawumba plays in Satan’s waiting room, sure as night follows day – and it’s not quite cheating because it’s what’s supposed to happen. But it still feels stale after 25 movies. And if you show us something that feels new, even if it’s composed of familiar stuff, you’ll be rewarded.
There aren’t hard and fast rules. Characters running upstairs instead of out the front door isn’t verboten – but characters who do so for no apparent good reason are assured of audience scorn. Villains who thwart heroes at every turn aren’t tiresome – unless they cross some vaguely defined threshold of improbability.
In the decades since the Scream franchise openly lampooned and celebrated the wink-grimace relationship between horror filmmakers and their audiences, studios seemed to get too reliant on a pair of these tactics. Jump-scares let the unscrupulous director shortcut to your adrenaline gland by relying on sudden shocks instead of building up atmosphere. Unremitting, slow gore taps into a sub-set of the horror fandom that wants to sit in the dark with strangers watching people get tortured.
Too often these cheap tools are the only ones to offer in modern horror fare, hammering away at audience tolerance and shrinking the boundaries of what a scary movie can conjure in viewers.
But some people still know how to use jump-scares and captive brutality as controlled elements within a more diverse palette, marrying them to subtler storytelling maneuvers and clever plot mechanics. Instead of mainlining panic, surprise, and the sound of popping tendons, these directors give us a sparing dose, and achieve a purer and more complicated high.
Fede Alverez seems to be one such modern artisan. After the mixed reception his 2013 Evil Dead remake, the Uruguayan phenom helmed a TV adaptation of From Dusk Till Dawn that got similarly modest praise.
Alverez’s newest work isn’t a straight remake, but Don’t Breathe is still derived from recycled concepts. Screen crooks have beset people with sensory disabilities before, as in the Netflix-backed Hush (2016) and the classic Wait Until Dark (1967). The robbers in Alverez’s newest target a blind man, setting up an obvious line of tension dominoes when he wakes up during their break-in.
It’s the kind of plot artifice that seems to give the whole game away in a single trailer. But Alverez and longtime co-writer Rodo Sayagues have held back the best cards in their hand, baiting audiences in with the blind-supersoldier-defends-himself hook only to spring a nastier trap at the film’s midway point.
Some movies take sudden left turns. This is a mountain-road hairpin in icy weather. Aleverez and Sayagues careen around it at vomit-comet speeds.
But they keep the car on the road, thanks in large part to the stellar work of their fellow off-screen artists. The filmmaking team takes too-familiar character types and relationships and subsumes them into a nervy ride, packed with quiet details to reward the scrutinous viewer and boldfaced tension to keep everyone else at seat’s edge.
Cinematographer Pedro Luque, another longtime ally, delivers a mix of close-ups and tracking shots that make the tiny Detroit block house feel claustrophobic and terrifying. Composer Roque Baños builds up a jittery mood in the best tradition of horror soundtracks, relying on accumulation rather than grandiosity for his impact.
But reserve the highest honors for editors Eric Beason, Louise Ford, and Gardner Gould. Don’t Breathe is a rhythmic delight, thanks to their polished work. Editing is a film’s throttle, speeding up or slowing down or cruising as appropriate for a given moment. The midpoint plot twist is the entrée – and it’s a delightfully disgusting thing to chew – but it only hits the table so effectively because Beason, Ford, and Gould have managed a perfect service around it.