'Don't Breathe': SXSW Review

A perfectly executed thriller, whether you're scared of the dark or not.

Fede Alvarez presents his "Untitled Ghost House Thriller" at the fest where his 'Evil Dead' premiered.

Fans of Evil Dead were rightly concerned when, in 2013, an unknown filmmaker from Uruguay arrived with a remake of Sam Raimi's cult classic. If Fede Alvarez had made Don't Breathe as his first feature instead of Dead, though, the fanboys would have been trembling with anticipation for the remake instead of waiting to pounce on it. A trapped-in-a-house thriller pitting thieves against an unexpectedly resourceful victim, the lean and mean pic offers scares aplenty and at least a couple of game-changing twists. It should fare well at the multiplex, where its appeal isn't limited to buffs who make horror films their bread and butter.

Producers and publicists had made a big fuss over billing this as an untitled film, refusing even to provide stills or a poster. "I feel this is my first film," the director said by way of introduction, explaining that he was excited to show it to an audience who hadn't seen a spoiler-stuffed trailer. Don't worry: Knowing the title in advance diminishes the tension not one bit. It's called Don't Breathe because the victim who turns out to stalk the intruders is a blind badass, ready to blast away at any floorboard creak or uncontrollable gasp.

Charismatic character actor Stephen Lang plays the unnamed Blind Man, a vet living in a large house in an otherwise abandoned Detroit neighborhood. Good place for a break-in, especially if you suspect, as our trio of thieves do, that he has a few hundred thousand dollars socked away in there, the settlement from an accident that killed his daughter. Alex (Dylan Minnette), who facilitates thefts by stealing keys and alarm info from his father's security business, is also the team's anxious naysayer, usually refusing to take cash because "above $10,000 it's major larceny." But this is life-changing money, especially for Rocky (Jane Levy, returning from the Evil Dead remake), who wants to move to California with boyfriend/partner-in-crime Money (Daniel Zovatto). Partly because he's in love with Rocky, Alex reluctantly agrees.

Getting in is harder than usual, given the many extra door locks and bars on windows. Nobody stops to think how these defenses might impact someone wanting to make a quick escape from within. They know the man inside is blind, so why should they worry?

But the camera knows. While the three are sneaking around inside, looking for cash and trying not to wake the man upstairs, Alvarez tracks them with a Steadicam, pulling away momentarily to show us an especially nasty-looking hand tool on the wall of a workroom. "See this," it says? "You'll be seeing it again." (Evil Dead offered similar witty grace notes.)

The Blind Man awakens soon enough and realizes he's being robbed. He doesn't know how many intruders there are, but he sets out to stop them. We should be on his side, but his determined defense of his home is terrifying, even if there's an undercurrent of fear driving it. Almost nonverbal, Lang's performance is so fierce it may take viewers a few scenes before they wonder why the youngsters don't just sneak up and hit him over the head with something. Fighting a blind man shouldn't be scary — but then, neither should slow-walking zombies.

The details of the ensuing cat-and-mice game should be left unexplored here, but it ruins no surprises to praise one basement sequence in which the lights go out, giving the advantage to the Blind Man who knows the terrain. Alvarez and DP Pedro Luque offer a sharp-looking alternative to the usual night-vision format, maximizing the panic in his subjects' wide-open eyes without leaving us sightless as well. Being in the dark with a trained killer is not the scariest thing in this tightly wound picture — but it'll do until the really life-threatening stuff comes along.

Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Midnighters)
Distributor: Sony Pictures Entertainment
Production company: Ghost House Pictures
Cast: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto
Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenwriters: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues
Producers: Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Fede Alvarez
Executive producers: Nathan Kahane, Joe Drake, Erin Westerman, J.R. Young, Mathew Hart
Director of photography: Pedro Luque
Production designer: Naaman Marshall
Costume designer: Carlos Rosario
Editors: Eric L. Beason, Louise Ford, Gardner Gould
Composer: Roque Baños
Casting director: Rich Delia

Rated R, 88 minutes