Opinions on day one were all over the map on Fede Alvarez’s 2013 reboot of the Evil Dead franchise, which subbed in a gal called Mia (Jane Levy) for that dude named Ash (Bruce Campbell, legend) while also replacing Raimi’s goofy lo-fi gore-torrents with a bigger budget and a way bigger sense of nastiness. I personally dug Alvarez’s Deadite take right off the bat, and a whole lot of that had to do with Levy herself proving to be an absolutely winning presence. And that sense doubled down three years later when Levy & Alvarez (alongside, importantly for our purposes today, writer Rodo Sayagues) re-teamed for their grimy B-picture Don’t Breathe, which saw Levy playing a morally dubious thief who found herself more than matched in the morally-dubious-sweepstakes by the blind ex-Marine (Stephen Lang) whose home she and a couple of pals had invaded.
Don’t Breathe turned out to be a wildly successful exercise in tension building, flipping our sympathies back and forth for a bit between the shitty robbers and the man being robbed before dropping the bottom out from under us at about the midpoint, when said sightless Marine was revealed to be a psycho-charged monster intent on sexually assaulting every woman who enters his home in order to bring back the child he’d previously lost in a car accident. As you can tell by all that tangle of backstory and intentions, the original Don’t Breathe does get a little mired in big reveals and double-backs in its last act, which knock some of the wind out of its relentlessly-efficient-up-until-then sails. Ultimately, though, it’s still a bang-up bout of genre nastiness, and you will jump off your sofa at least a couple of times, I promise.
But if you thought the original film had a little too much plotting for its own good, just wait until you see the sequel. Don’t Breathe 2 puts the plodding in plotting with whole rafts of characters and situations and backstories boated in to try and justify itself in ways that were probably entirely unnecessary and self-inflicted. The first film ended with a bit of a stalemate, a psycho détente between Levy’s character and The Blind Man (whose very funny name of “Norman Nordstrum” is revealed in the original’s final moments), who each go their own ways: her with the loot, him with his status as an innocent veteran (and not a rapist-murderer) intact. The obvious way to go with a sequel would have been to reunite these two for a double bonus battle royale a few years down the line, right?
Don’t Breathe 2 (again scripted by Alvarez and Sayagues, but with Sayagues sitting in the director’s chair this time) goes its own way, and part of me is inclined to say good on ‘em for subverting our expectations. But the other part of me, the part that actually sat through Don’t Breathe 2, can’t help but feel otherwise. Maybe the obvious path would have been better in this instance. Because every choice Alvarez and Sayagues did make takes us further and further away from what actually worked so well with the first film (its ruthless scare-box simplicity) to build on what very nearly didn’t (all of those last-half reveals). Don’t Breathe 2 is the filmmakers doubling down, then quadrupling down, on a bunch of not-needed busy-ness that just gets in the film’s way. It’s a mess.
The first choice they made, to make Lang’s villain the sequel’s leading man, maybe didn’t have to be a deal-breaker. Lang is always a commanding presence, and I couldn’t count on even a dozen hands the endless numbers of morally compromised, downright despicable men that I’ve watched and thoroughly enjoyed movies about. But every choice that was made from that first choice feels in this finished product like an apology—like a frantic digging of a hole inside the line of tide to justify that first choice. It’s quicksand. Every plot contrivance reeks of desperation, from the cute little girl called Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) that Norman has now “adopted” to his now character-defining adoration of dogs, and out (and out, and out) to the truly ridiculous grotesquerie of villains who have come to smash in his windows this go-round.
The first half here, as Norman and Phoenix hide and defend themselves from this brand new gang of bleach-haired punk-adjacent thugs who seem dropped straight out of a Z-grade ’80s flick (and that description is not by any means a demerit on its own), does have its own particular sort of old-school action-movie pleasures. Sayagues’ camera roves around the house in faked single takes, giving us the lay of the land and its players as they all duke it out on tippy-toes—all the better to throw the senses off Norman’s ever-sniffing self who we know already, from the start this time, to be the really real for-real threat. There’s some great face-first casting amid these ugly mugs, with Brendan Sexton III (always and forever Brandon from Welcome to the Dollhouse for me) leading the despicable bunch.
But like a self-replicating virus, the complications start having complications, and you can only flip the tables so many times before somebody has to shout stop, the dishes are smashed, and I wanna go home. By the time Jessica Hyde from the original Utopia series (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) shows up as a chest-heaving Meth Queen with a death surgeon on speed dial, the film seems to have realized that it needs to be fully camp and it needs to be fully camp now, but it’s basically too late at that point. It’s been straining so hard to make us care about people it’s impossible to care about that the film’s deranged last half is in freefall, smashing our faces on every branch along the way.
I hate to be That Guy who talks about the movie he’d like to have seen rather than the one the storytellers decided to make, but by the end of Don’t Breathe 2 you really have no idea why this was the story these storytellers decided they had to tell. Why complicate a good thing this dang much? The film doesn’t offer any substantial arguments in its favor, and you’re well past reaching around in the dark to find one by that point. All I know is that as the end credits rolled I had the realization that in this economy I no longer take the luxury of breathing lightly, and you’re going to have to come up with a much better case than this to tell me not to. So breathe plenty, I say.
Don’t Breathe 2 opens in theaters on August 13.
Image sources (in order of posting): Sony,