The recent success of the relatively low budget movie DON’T BREATHE (2016) has a lot of people talking about how great it is to see a horror film be a big hit again. I am glad to see something with a Detroit setting be a big hit (one of my ex-students is listed in the credits). I am happy to see character actor Stephen Lang getting some notice for a very well done job. I am still a huge fan of his portrayal of General George Pickett (yes, of THAT famous charge) in the little seen but wonderful Civil War epic GETTYSBURG (1994). My hat is off to director Fede Alvarez for creating inventive and suspenseful set pieces that keep the drama moving (whether in a car or a closet or a basement) and keep the audience on the edge of their seats for the movie’s entire length. Well done! And kudos to actress Jane Levy whose sensitive portrayal of main character Rocky make us sympathize with someone who is basically a robber.
But, to my mind, the one thing DON’T BREATHE is not is a HORROR movie.
Are there suspenseful moments? Plenty of them. Are there a few scary moments meant to make the audience jump out of their seats? Yep, two or three. Are there some plot twists designed to make audience members (both male and female) cringe and cross their legs tightly? Totally.
But is it a horror film? To my mind, no.
In order for a film to be considered a horror film, it needs more than just scary moments. The scares must arise from supernatural elements: ghosts, mythical creatures (vampires, werewolves, monsters), witches, devils, demons, satanic cults, undead killers (Michael Myers, Jason, Freddy Krueger, et al), or undead/resurrected creatures (zombies, Frankenstein, dinosaurs). Essentially, people or creatures who have all had a brush with death or crossed over to “the other side” and come back to threaten us humans. They are difficult to kill because, in most cases, they are already dead. In order to defeat them, we ourselves have to go to the edge of death ourselves and come back.
The most successful horror films of the past fifteen years have all had these elements. The PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies were built around a series of families that found themselves involved with demons and cults. The FINAL DESTINATION series followed a never-ending series of teenagers trying to stay one step ahead of Death after they had mistakenly survived an event where they were supposed to die. This week, the long awaited BLAIR WITCH sequel finds yet another group of investigators plunging into the infamous Burkett Woods searching for the last party of investigators who disappeared while searching for the long rumored witch of the same name. INSIDIOUS, SINSTER, THE CONJURING and their sequels. All are horror films based around characters encountering and having to defeat a supernatural element that threatens their lives.
Again, DON’T BREATHE doesn’t have any of these elements. It is the story of a trio of small time thieves who decide to break into the home of a blind military vet on a deserted Detroit street and steal the large cache of cash he is rumored to keep on site. They break in. They discover that the blind man (Stephen Lang) is not as helpless as they first believed. They encounter some surprising revelations about the man as they try to fight their way back out. But nothing they encounter is supernatural in any way. The scariest thing about the movie is that most of the surprises have been ripped from today’s headlines (as they used to say). It is scary because real people have actually done these things – or had them done to them. We are scared, repulsed, and reviled. But that doesn’t make this a horror film.
To my mind, what DON’T BREATHE is is an action film. Action films are generally defined as a movie that favors action scenes over characterization. The movie’s drama does not arise from the interaction between the characters but by the constant series of chases, gun battles, and cat and mouse situations the characters find themselves in. Action films are usually populated by criminals and cops seeking to solve or accomplish some kind of crime whether it is a robbery or a murder or a kidnapping. That is DON’T BREATHE to a tee. To my mind, it is an action film: a standard, suspenseful, action film with good performances and good direction and a fairly entertaining and resourceful script. Not a horror film at all.
Am I missing something? Is DON’T BREATHE a horror film or an action film? What do you think?