Well, well, welll…
If Jason Blum is currently the most notorious horror producer in Hollywood today, Sam Raimi has to be in the lead for 2nd. Even as his directorial filmography continues to be dominated by superheroes, as a producer he has never abandoned his horror roots. As a result, we’ve received unique entries to the genre such as the remake of The Evil Dead (2013) and Don’t Breathe (2016), both helmed by filmmaker Fede Álvarez. The latter was a surprise hit, a chiller that took advantage of its production design and changing perspectives to create a thriller where you weren’t quite sure who was predator and who was prey. However, while Don’t Breathe was successful, it also seemed like a self-contained story that didn’t need to be expanded with sequels. I certainly didn’t see any fervent calls to continue the story. But, Sony saw that $158 million box office, vs a $10 million budget, and said “Fuck it, let’s run it back!” So, here we are.
The new film, set years later after the original, sees Stephan Lang once again star as former Navy Seal Norman Nordstrom (we serious? How bad were the names that didn’t make the cut?), a blind and worn down man who lives a rather unhappy existence in Detroit. However, unlike the original, Norman now has a daughter, Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), whom he trains in survival simulations which include running for her life from the family canine. Curiously, there’s no mother present, and Norman tells Phoenix that her mom died years ago in a fire. Norman cares for her, but is so overprotective that he smothers her. She has no friends, no social life, is home schooled, and he begrudgingly allows Phoenix to hangout with the closest person Norman has to a friend.
Fed up with her depressing life, Phoenix demands that Norman allows her some freedom, to no avail, and in secret she plans to one day escape to a nearby shelter. The poor girl beams at the brochure for this shelter like she’s going to Hogwarts. As Phoenix’s outer desires mount, she and Norman are about to become the unsuspecting targets of a strange group of miscreants, headed by Raylan (Brendan Sexton III). However, the gang’s motives prove to be more complex and devious than their targets could possibly imagine.
Once we get to the nighttime scares, the film hits its peak which includes a couple of oners that show off an engrossing visual flair. There are narrow escapes that the protagonists must pull off that are as fun as they are silly (Houdini couldn’t pull off some of these escapes). There’s a wireact balance between over the top violence and camp that the movie doesn’t always successfully navigate. One character solves the issue of his mouth being glued shut by cutting it open with glass, yet seems to talk just fine afterwards??? A character falls asleep while hiding, only to wake up when their hiding place is almost filled to the brim with water. They didn’t wake up immediately when their legs were being submerged with cold water?
As the plot progresses, Don’t Breathe 2 strains itself to expand on the original story, thus ingratiating the audience with one ludicrous story development after another. Debut director Rodo Sayagues, replacing Álvarez, goes into a route that isn’t as suspenseful as the original, but turns up the violence in ways that would be just as home in an action movie than a horror film. The first Don’t Breathe, like many action films, featured the plot device of young/arrogant criminals trying to screw over the wrong old guy. But that film at least played up the horror elements, utilizing the darkness, Norman’s blindness, and his advantage of knowing his house better than his intruders in order to build suspense.
Here, that cat and mouse game only makes up about 1/3 of Don’t Breathe 2. Eventually, Norman sheds the skin of a horror antagonist, and turns into an action hero akin to Rambo or John McClane. There’s even a moment where a henchman tells the bad guy “ITS HIM!” as if Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to crash into the window of the hideout and start shooting.
Norman isn’t really a sympathetic hero, as evidenced by his actions in both movies, but the filmmakers keep trying to get you on his side. I believe the issue that Don’t Breathe has, if the studio intends this to be an ongoing franchise, is the series does not have a protagonist you can root for. Norman is simply too damaged and sinful to be more than an anti-hero at best. Thus, the adversaries he encounters must be increasingly despicable to justify his transition from antagonist to protagonist. When we get to the reveal of the villain’s true goal, it’s so damn silly that it’s the type of plot that would be the object of satire in something like Bride of Chucky. But it’s played straight here, tongue firmly away from cheek.
The original film kept audiences on the edge of their seat because there were genuine surprises, and you weren’t sure what would happen next. But Don’t Breathe 2 settles into formula, and an action formula no less, which we have plenty of in the marketplace already. Norman even gets in a “punny” one-liner before he offs one of the bad guys. There’s still a strong visual style, while the performances of Lang and Grace are good enough to keep the drama entertaining. But there’s very much a lack of imagination to keep this story going, as we navigate revelations that paint our main character in a more negative light, but ludicrous plot developments allow the main character to still be positioned as a hero.
There may still be life left in this hemorrhaging story, but it requires more character development. Phoenix and Norman are interesting characters, and a story that plays up their traumatic past, rather than glossing over Norman’s transgressions, will be a welcome change. Hell, he spent her whole life training her for the apocalypse it seems, let’s see all that work put to use. Seeing Norman as a complex anti-hero can be easier to stomach if juxtaposed with a more firm protagonist. It’s a dynamic worth keeping around, but next we would appreciate a plot that doesn’t make us roll our eyes.