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Sunday, 12 September 2021

Review: Don't Breathe 2

Don't Breathe 2 is an odd sequel in a number of ways. For one, it's late: the original Don't Breathe was released in 2016 and slotted into the then-current trend for "elevated horror" (see also: It Follows) despite mostly being a fairly grungy high concept horror where a trio of would-be thieves broke into an old blind guys house only to discover it's full of traps, he's basically Daredevil as far as hearing goes, and there's a twist with a turkey baster nobody in their right mind saw coming.

It's also a sequel where we're supposed to forget all that - or at least, the turkey baster stuff - because this time the bad guy, Norman Nordstrom, AKA "The Blind Man" (Stephen Lang) is... okay, he's not the good guy, but he's more of a badass than a bad dude. 

The real lead is eleven year old Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), who lives with Norman, doesn't get to go out much and spends her days being taught survival tactics because they live in Detroit 2021. Watch out for the roving gangs of murderers hanging around the shelter full of surplus orphans!

On an extremely rare trip to the outside world, Phoenix and Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila), Norman's only link to humanity so let's not get too attached here, encounter a scuzzy group of van-dwelling dirtbags while a TV in the background runs a news story about a missing Doctor wanted for organ-legging. Could these things be connected? Yes, but not in the way you're probably thinking.

The middle chunk of the film is basically a retread of the first film - criminals turn up at Norman's house looking to grab something, only to realise they've bitten off more than they can chew - though because we're meant to be (somewhat) on Norman's side he's not quite the supernatural killing machine he was first time around. He's still a blind man taking out the trash, but he's struggling with it and not all the trash gets taken all the way out to the bin.

Home invasion films (and even just sequences in a film) are pretty much sure-fire as far as tension goes. They're basically filmed games of hide and seek, and Phoenix's survival skills come in handy as she's got to creep around the house trying to avoid the stalker squad. One nice touch is she never runs, just walks quickly and firmly when she has to, which is the kind of minor moment of competency that makes a film seem like it knows what it's doing.

Because this isn't quite a horror film, and the bad guys have an agenda that isn't quite "murder murder murder", it's able to pull off a few minor gear changes during the home invasion scenes that keep things slightly more interesting than the usual "find them and kill them". The small attempts to give the cartoon thugs some character and motivation, combined with a hero who's both blind and on the back foot in any direct physical confrontation (while also still implausibly effective) makes this just a little more suspenseful than it should be.

A big test for a film where an immovable object runs up against a force that only seems unstoppable for the first hour or so is how well it can delay the point where it goes from "aw shit, how's he going to survive this?"  to "hell yeah, the bad guys are screwed now". This manages to delay it a lot longer than you might expect for a sequel, as the third act throws in a few twists (including a location change) that may not be entirely plausible for a crime film but work just fine as this slides a little further down towards the horror end of the scale. Everything here is nuts if you think about it, but it's all equally nuts so it evens out.

To be fair, all this is qualified praise: it's still a trashy, over the top home invasion thriller largely held together by Lang's imposing physical presence and a script that barrels forward at a rate designed to prevent reflection. It's a relatively standard, if competently crafted, thrill-ride - until you remember what Nordstrom was doing in the first film, which makes this sequel's (relatively effective) attempts to turn him into a good guy one of the craziest plot twists in recent cinematic history. 

- Anthony Morris


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