Blind Man’s Bluff: Young thieves get a creepy comeuppance in Fede Alvarez’s ‘Don’t Breathe’

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Don't underestimate Uruguayan-born director Fede Alvarez's new horror-thriller Don't Breathe because there's nary a franchise villain in sight. And don't let the title fool you into dismissing it as a nostalgic throwback to prohibitive shockers of the 1970s/early ’80s—movies like Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Don't Look in the Basement, Don't Torture a Duckling, Don't Go in the House, Don't Deliver Us From Evil and Don't Go in the Woods. Alvarez admits the title is a little horror-fan shout—he was a fan before he was a filmmaker: "I think those kind of titles are pretty cool," he admits, and producer Sam Raimi concurred. But Screen Gems’ Don't Breathe is something else, a seriously suspenseful thriller with horrific elements. And suffice it to say that ticket buyers will get more than they bargained for when they pony up the price of admission beginning August 26.

Born in Montevideo in 1978, Alvarez got into movies as a child and quickly began borrowing the family camcorder to make little stop-motion videos. He graduated to short films by his teens. So far that's the story of lots of movie-besotted young people, from Steven Spielberg to that guy you knew who almost flunked out of high school because he spent more time working on a no-budget, all-feline variation of Gremlins than he did doing homework.

But the short Alvarez poured his youthful energy into was Panic Attack!, a giant-robot movie full of fireballs and some pretty impressive, digitally rendered mechanical monsters; he eventually completed the five-minute short for a total cost (in cash, anyway) of $300.

"I finished it and I just went to YouTube," he says. "It was my way of getting rid of it because I spent so much time with it. Then I felt, 'This short is done' and I put it out of my mind, and basically I woke up and there were all these calls from Hollywood saying, 'Hey, I want to meet you.'"

Actually, there was a little more to it than that, but not much. Alvarez worked in production and post-production locally, made other shorts—including the ambitious El Cojonudo (2005), a wicked little tale of very bad things happening in what might as well be Texas Chainsaw country—and continued soaking up movies ranging from locally made "small stories about real people with familiar problems" to American blockbusters and the genre pictures he loved as a teenager—the more outrageous the better.

"Look, most of the things in your teen years are like that," he says mildly. "When I was listening to music, I tried to find the most hardcore metal ever... You're always trying to find that thing that will transgress everything.

"But even though I wanted to make [Hollywood movies] in Uruguay, you never get your hopes high that you're going to work [there]... that kind of thing never, ever happens.

"And that's actually a great thing," he continues, "because you focus on what matters: Keep telling stories for the right reasons, because you like to tell these stories, not because you're trying to break into Hollywood. The whole thing of 'trying to break into the business' is what keeps you from actually breaking into the business."

And fortune smiled on him, as he's the first to admit: Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, Alvarez was leaving a screening "with one of the people who called me [producer Roy Lee] and I bumped into Nathan Kahane—he's one of Sam Raimi's partners—and we started talking about movies. We got along and that led to the first movie deal. At first it was going to be some kind of movie version of the short, but I didn't really want to do that, so we wound up doing [the 2013 remake of] Evil Dead. It's a very strange story when I tell it—I know it doesn’t happen every day in Hollywood, unfortunately. But I was very lucky that way."

The Evil Dead reboot, which Alvarez wrote with Rodo Sayagues (his longtime collaborator, from Panic Attack! to Don't Breathe), opened to mixed critical reception, but performed well and paved the way for a second project with Raimi's Ghost House, originally announced as A Man in the Dark. He and Sayagues set to work on a thriller that would toy with conventions while remaining within genre parameters.

The bare bones are familiar: Three desperate young people, experienced burglars, decide to rob a reclusive blind man to finance an escape from their dead-end futures. Though the man lives like a poor hermit, they know he received a large insurance settlement after his only child was struck and killed by a young driver—it was big local news.    

Everything is in the telling: Tension is hard to sustain over the length of a feature, but Alvarez wanted to push the story to its limits and build in answers to the "Why didn't they..." questions that irritate seen-it-all fans.

"Audiences are usually very harsh to judge the characters—what they do or don't do," he observes. "They're like, 'I would never do that!' But what I think I'm seeing is that the characters somehow echo what the audience thinks they would do in the situation. There's not a lot of moments where you go, 'Come on! Don't do that! You would never do that in real life!' We didn't want those moments, which you usually discover when you watch with an audience. There are moments—like one where someone is running away and they stop for a second to look over their shoulder. But I think that makes sense: Someone is chasing you, you've been running for a while, you want to see if they're still there. But even there, they're like 'Keep running!'"

That said, there are no spring-break bimbos or bone-headed jocks among the younger characters; they may have made bad choices and they may panic, but they're not off-the-assembly-line, horror-movie stereotypes, in part because Alvarez and Sayagues didn't see the film as a formula fright flick.

"Don't Breathe isn't a full-blooded horror movie," he explains, "but has elements. What originally attracted me to horror movies when I was first watching them as a teenager is that... there was always this element of transgression that would shock you, that you couldn't believe you were watching and you would tell people about it. With this film, we really wanted to try to go there.

"In the first half, you feel like you're watching a pretty crafty thriller where everything is kind of measured, and then suddenly it really gets bananas. We felt that was the way it had to go, so let's just go for it, breaking some rules and showing some things you've never seen before so you'll walk out of the theatre and tell your friends, 'Oh man, you have got to see it.'"

That seems like a tall order, given that today's audience has seen a lot, and Alvarez agrees. "I'll never forget, I was reading this book about masters of horror before going to bed, and a journalist was asking John Carpenter how, in this time when we've seen everything and everything has been done, he was going to continue to shock audiences. And as I'm reading his answer I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute, what year is this?' The interview was from 1985...somebody in 1985 was asking how he was going to shock people. We know now that in 1985 everything hadn't been done and we hadn't seen it all. Torture porn didn't even exist... there's always more to do."

Alvarez already had transgression in mind when he made El Cojonudo, but saw that film as "more of a comedy; we were going for more of the absurd sensibility, like Jean-Pierre Jeunet...that obsession with bizarre characters and warped sensibility that's done so well in Delicatessen and City of Lost Children." Not so with Don't Breathe—the filmmaker likes a fun horror comedy or lighthearted thriller movie as much as the next person, but warns, "I won't tell you what it is, but there's something in this... oh, man."

He will say, though, that "it's the whole element of weirdness and I'm fascinated to see how the audience reacts to those things...it puts you in a place that's just uncomfortable... What I'm looking to do is to bring a little bit of chaos and anarchy and unpredictability to this movie that I've been lucky enough to make, [a movie] that is a wide release.

"The kind of things that are in this movie are the kind of things that most Hollywood producers say, ‘Can you cut that out?'... Usually movies with these kind of things will be destined to be in 30 theatres or even a smaller release, you'll see them in festivals but the masses never get to see those. So I'm happy that so far I'm getting away with it."

That said, Don't Breathe at first does evoke familiar movies, notably the 1966 play Wait Until Dark, in which a blind woman is terrorized in her home by three sighted intruders looking to rob her. (It was filmed in 1967 with Audrey Hepburn and revived on Broadway in 1998, with Quentin Tarantino as one of the thugs.) In Alvarez's film, the three teens are looking to score a substantial sum of cash that the blind man (Stephen Lang, of Avatar) keeps somewhere in his house in a rundown, largely deserted neighborhood. Easy peasy, the kids think. But they underestimate the older man: He's blind but not deaf, he's ex-military and he's angry before they ever break into his home. Casting, Alvarez knew, was key.

"I really didn't want to make up my mind about who [should play] the blind man while I was writing—I try not to do that in general. I don't want to fall in love with an actor, because the reality is that maybe the actor you want to go after is not available, and you feel as though you're fucked because you convinced yourself that that's the guy.

"Usually by the time you get into production," he continues, "you get a list from producers and agents with about 20 names of who is in the budget range, who would do this [movie/part], who read the script and liked it... I don't know who compiles them, but you get them.

"So, the first day I got the pages and Slang was there—‘Slang' is what he likes to be called—his name is first and I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, this is just too good.' I knew he was a great actor—no question about that—he has played a military person in the past, he wants to do it and we just got along. He also brought a lot of reality to it—he has those blind contact lenses. You hardly see anything out of them, and nothing in a dark environment.

"It was a pleasure to work with him. When we'd be gearing up to shoot, he'd just be standing there in the corner by himself, not talking... He was such a presence for the rest of the cast—he got the young actors off their phones. Between takes they'd always be on their phones—so frustrating. But they were terrified by his presence because he would always bring it; it wasn't until the day was over that he'd crack a joke."

Ultimately, Alvarez hopes to chill moviegoers and keep them guessing until the final credits roll. "Usually you know that you want one of the characters to get away and for the bad guy to die a horrible death," he says. "But the lines are kind of blurry here. We have a film where nobody is really good, and while this wasn't part of our master plan at the beginning, I realized that when none of your characters is good, it's way harder to predict the end.

"You don't want them to kill the blind man and take his money, but at the same time you don't want him to kill them. You basically know how events are going to play out, but you don't know how it's going to end, because you don't know how you want it to end."