Don’t Breathe 2 is fighting one hell of an uphill battle. As the follow-up to 2016’s sleeper hit Don’t Breathe, it’s coming out very late in the game. More so, however, concerns have arisen over the sequel’s trailer. Purportedly, this film is out to make the Blind Man – who by the end of the first film was revealed to be a psychopathic rapist – the hero. Although that concern is very much justified from the marketing materials, that’s not exactly what this film has in mind.
If Don’t Breathe was a terrific minimalist chiller that revealed its darker nature as it went on, Don’t Breathe 2 is that film’s ghoulish estranged step-brother. It’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 to the first film’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Writer-director Rodo Sayagues and co-writer Fede Alvarez – who directed the first film – bring a much meaner, grosser vision to the saga. One which may alienate just as many as it may turn into a cult fan base of its own.
The perspective switch of the film is audacious in-and-of-itself. In the beginning, audiences’ fears are by no means allayed. Norman Nordstrom/The Blind Man (Stephen Lang) is living a secluded life years after the first film with a newfound daughter Phoenix (Madelyn Grace). He trains her to be a survivalist, while not letting her out other than on special occasions. The mystery of her parentage looms over. An inherent ickiness hangs over the proceedings, one which is by all means intentional. Stephen Lang is back in top form as the Blind Man, whose newfound softer side has an interesting effect: it makes him scarier. How is it that this bonafide movie monster, who we’ve seen do terrible things, has the capacity to show this love and compassion? Less sympathy for the devil, more character study.
Upon the arrival of the film’s villains, Don’t Breathe 2 ventures deep into the murky, morally grey depths. A gang of miscreants, led by a commendably committed Brendan Sexton III, barges into the Blind Man’s house to take Phoenix for their own ends. Rylan (Sexton III) and his gang are villains that have the distinction of being possibly more reprehensible than the Blind Man. No small feat, but their snarling violent aura brings a dark cloud of filth and destruction wherever they lurk.
This sets the stage for all-out war and, baby, does Don’t Breathe 2 bring the carnage. Filmed with great freneticism by Pedro Luque and backed by an absurdly memorable score from Roque Baños, there’s a stretch where Don’t Breathe 2 does not let up on the gas. Whereas the first film drew its horror from quiet intensity, Don’t Breathe 2 goes for bombast. Outstandingly staged, gory moments are designed to when the unstoppable force of the invaders meets the immovable object of the Blind Man. There are many, many, many effective moments during the first half of the film where it’s hard not to hoot and holler as increasingly more deranged shows of blood and guts flash across the screen.
In the middle of all this mayhem is Madelyn Grace’s Phoenix, who is the true anchor for the film. Her believable performance sells just how frightening her situation really is. Moreover, she neither becomes the frail, scared child or the over-the-top survivor. Phoenix is a little girl who must deal with the vileness of the world of men at a very early age. Her journey to figure her way through this world is a captivating one.
Somewhere around the end of the first hour, the narrative seizes control. Like the first film, this one has twists in store. In the place of some big reveal, we get a deep understanding of who the Blind Man and Raylan’s gang really are. What they want. And how they intend to go about getting it. It’s a markedly different story than “Don’t Breathe, but in the blind man’s point of view this time”. Sayagues and Alvarez use the world of Don’t Breathe to explore markedly grimier territory than we usually see in horror.
We are but the observers into a world of debauchery, selfishness, and a ton of bloodshed. Like Phoenix, we have no choice but to find our way out of this mess. And the conclusion to Don’t Breathe 2 almost completely nails the landing, with a monologue from the Blind Man that reads like a refutation of what those who expected from the movie thought they were getting. Unfortunately, Don’t Breathe 2 gets cold feet, ending on a note that almost cheapens the experience. Almost.
Don’t Breathe 2 is a genuine gasp of fresh air into the arena of horror sequels. It’s unafraid to come across as off-putting, explore new ideas, and tell its own story. As a companion piece to Don’t Breathe, it’s exhilaratingly bizarre. As its own film, it’s even better. At first, I planned to score this film much lower. But the more the days have gone by since I’ve seen it, the more it’s wormed its way into my brain. Caked in about 10 layers of moral grey, swerving into different territory, Don’t Breathe 2 demands to be discussed in the coming years in the pantheon of great horror. –James Preston Poole
Don’t Breathe 2 is now playing in theaters.