It’s hard to argue with the fact that the Fede Alvarez-directed home invasion horror Don’t Breathe was a massive success in 2016. On a budget of just shy of ten million dollars it raked in nearly sixteen times this amount in box office revenue. Therefore, the age-old Hollywood logic dictated that the filmmakers would seriously consider making a sequel without perhaps sitting down to consider the ramifications of what they were about to do.
As effective and compelling Don’t Breathe was with its refreshing conceit of turning a home invasion template on its head, turning the tables on the perpetrators and, crucially, revealing the supposed hero of the story – a blind veteran with a unique set of skills – as a full-blown sociopath with a gruesome secret of his own, the film was effectively un-follow-up-able (if that’s even a word). After all, we can’t really come back to this world like nothing happened. We can’t unlearn that the blind veteran Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) had at one point in the past kidnapped someone responsible for his child’s death, impregnated her and held her in a dungeon before attempting to do the same to one of the home invaders from the original film! To call it painting oneself into a corner would be an understatement and a more accurate metaphor for trying to imagine a sequel to Don’t Breathe would be trying to resume a Christmas dinner after a family member is revealed to be a wife-beating monster. You can’t just casually get back to chewing on your honey-glazed parsnips, complement your mum’s cooking and attempt to restart a conversation about your recent skiing trip.
Therefore, it’s not exactly surprising that the bulk of the critical response to Don’t Breathe 2 has been composed of contempt of the seemingly immoral attempt at trying to convince the audience to root for a rapist and a cold-blooded murderer intermixed with highlighting the narrative contortions the movie had to perform to get everyone to disregard this elephant in the room in the first place. To this end, the filmmakers Rodo Sayagues (the co-writer of the original who assumed the role of the director) and Fede Alvarez decided to complicate matters a whole lot more by introducing the character of Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), a young girl who is found in Norman’s care after he has saved her from a house fire. She is home-schooled, effectively sheltered from society – allegedly for her own safety, yet we all know this is because Norman isn’t exactly alright to say the least – and trained regularly to develop skills needed to survive in modern-day Detroit (which, I am told, was effectively impersonated by Belgrade). Phoenix catches the attention of some shady-looking types, who may or may not belong to an organ-trafficking gang terrorizing the neighbourhood, which sets the stage for an ill-fated home invasion. Only this time, we do know what the blind man is capable of, which – I suppose – was designed as an exercise in Hitchcockian suspense where we get to observe in full knowledge of what is about to happen how the invaders waltz ignorantly towards their own demise like lambs to the slaughter.
But we all know this wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the requirements of a sequel to a film which relied heavily on a second act twist recontextualizing the motivations of lead characters, which Don’t Breathe 2 attempts as well, thus complicating the narrative a little bit. Without divulging too much I can only summarize that this decision both helps to camouflage the aforementioned elephant in the room by drawing attention to something else while specifically building a set piece around Norman saving the day once more, which is more than enough to elicit a big ‘yikes’ from a sizeable section of the audience.
However, there is a way to enjoy this film without necessarily selling your soul to the devil and it requires refocusing our own perspective as viewers. Although it is perhaps more organic (and highly problematic, mind you!) to align ourselves with Norman, the filmmakers leave enough room for us to spend a good chunk of the film clutching to Phoenix’s shoulder. In fact, some of the key and most effective sequences in the film – like her tippy-toe attempts to evade the baddies in her house, her ordeal to survive in a locked metal locker and the climactic finale of the film, to name a few – seem geared predominantly towards enabling such alignment and effectively turn her character into a play on ‘the final girl’ archetype. Granted, there’s a bit of mental gymnastics required to stay married to this concept, especially in light of one key event following the home invasion, but it is considerably easier than pretending that Norman isn’t an irredeemable monster.
With this filter applied, Don’t Breathe 2 can be seen as a competent horror film that places distinct emphasis on its use of gruesome violence and gore, albeit in strategic and measured instances, while staying focused on following a seemingly defenceless character as she tries to evade capture or death. Even though it eventually flies of the handle and ventures headfirst into the world of ridiculous plotting and downright moronic character motivations, the entirety of the film’s success as a compelling piece of exploitation rests squarely on the execution of the key home invasion set piece and its hyper-stylized finale seemingly winking at the way Fede Alvarez’s remake of Evil Dead found its conclusion with everything being drenched in deep reds and characters decidedly leaving their vaguely human characterizations. Seasoned generously with organically grown and effectively deployed urgency to prop the story in two key places, the entire film becomes an entertaining affair… that is until we are reminded in the very ending of who Norman is; which might make the drive home a bit more awkward than it needs to be, especially with all that adrenaline having sweated into our clothing in the process of watching the movie.
Having said that, I must admit that I did find Don’t Breathe 2 entertaining enough. Granted, I don’t see myself as easily outraged and I was perfectly capable of shifting my perspective to see the film through the girl’s eyes, but I won’t be surprised if many other viewers find this experience a bit too tactless and distasteful. Therefore, I can honestly recommend this film to two kinds of people: those who did not see the original and somehow forgot that I spoiled it thoroughly in the opening to this text, and those who can latch onto Phoenix’s character – even with her own motivations being laid out rather poorly – and lose themselves temporarily in the spectacle of violence and revenge.
Nevertheless, I think we are all in agreement that nobody in their right mind should ever consider green lighting Don’t Breathe 3. Where this film goes narratively notwithstanding, I remain fully aware that someone out there in Hollywood has probably already pitched an idea for a sequel or a prequel to this film, to which I can only salute from a safe distance because I can’t see a way forward that isn’t either completely uninspired, inexcusably problematic, or – heavens forbid – both.