2016’s Don’t Breathe may not have been groundbreaking, but it was a… ahem, breathe of fresh air as far as seeing a relatively cheap horror film from a major studio that knew how to balance a minimalist premise with maximalist thrills. With a killer box office total relative to cost and a new horror villain to bank on, greenlighting Don’t Breathe 2 was a no-brainer. Five years later, here we are with the sequel, and unfortunately, the route chosen needed more air or at least a lot of additional thought, given the choices made for its premise.
Set a while after the first film’s events, The Blind Man (Stephen Lang, committed as ever), is now living further from society and raising the 11-year-old Phoenix (Madelyn Grace). Having trained her to be as attuned to her surroundings as he is, the two will be dealing with one long night where intruders once again come to cause trouble in an old man’s home. However, this deadly gang, led by Brendan Sexton III, may have more awareness of who they are after than The Blind Man may realize.
To dig into Don’t Breathe 2, it’s important to address what occurred in the first film. For those not caught up, I’ll just say there may actually be a benefit to seeing this film without knowing what transpires in the first. Of course, one would have to also count out the superior direction, better writing, and the more interesting cast of characters, among other things, but there you have it. With that in mind, being plenty familiar with the first film (which is still pretty terrific), this sequel has one major problem from the get-go, and it’s the regard we are supposed to have for Lang’s Blind Man.
It’s not new for horror films, particularly sequels, to find the filmmakers leaning into what makes the villain appealing, let alone charismatic. Freddy Krueger and Chucky may be the epitome of this notion. Even Jason Vorhees has a cheering section. However, those characters are rooted in a certain kind of reality. Their actions don’t take away from what has the audience continually intrigued by their next move. The Blind Man operates on a different level. As a character who begins the first film as a man seemingly defending his home, only to be revealed as a sinister rapist, the attempt to turn him into an anti-hero does not register well here.
This time around, the first film’s director, Fede Alvarez, stepped aside for his filmmaking partner Rodo Sayagues to take the reins, but the two have still put together a screenplay. I can see where they were coming from as far as breaking through on an idea for a follow-up. Turning the tables on The Blind Man and having him play more like the one being chased this time around (along with his “daughter”) is the natural way to go. However, waiting for the ball to drop on why this happened proved to be a fool’s errand.
A part of me was sure the filmmakers were clever enough to tie everything together, providing either a justification for the audience to want to root for The Blind Man or a killer twist that would put us back into a position like in the first film. Alas, I was wrong. While some turns in this story add dimensions to what we are seeing and the new characters we meet, it feels as though Don’t Breathe 2 wants to cancel out what we already know about The Blind Man. It may try to add a different, evil element to this world as if comparing versions of awful things somehow makes one side better, but I wasn’t falling for it.
Similarly, I wasn’t falling for the high level of convenience needed to support a lot of the decisions made by these characters. While the first film featured characters just smart enough to understand their situation, with a set of parameters that allowed the film to believably contain itself to its location, Don’t Breathe 2 loses this. The characters make idiotic choices, let alone ones that feel uninformed by the overall story for the sake of withholding certain bits of information from the audience. These are not wise decisions, as they ultimately hurt the tension, let alone the logic presented.
There are some clever bits. In a film featuring multiple stages of home invasion, the first one, which primarily revolves around Phoenix avoiding numerous men in the house, works quite well. Watching her navigate an extensive household features the most thrills this film can put together. Similarly, seeing a blind man think on his feet as far as dealing with these intruders has some payoffs that work better than others. Separated from knowing who this man is, seeing the power shift between “cat” and “mouse” is how this film can best function as a sequel.
Still, much of what takes place either feels off or doesn’t deliver in the way that’s intended. For one, many moments end up feeling laughable. There is nothing wrong with some levity to break the tension, but having ill-advised character moments does more harm than good. Adding to that, the film just isn’t very scary. Granted, the Don’t Breathe films are more in line with thrillers than full-on horror, but having a lot more characters in this film, compared to the first, let alone multiple tough guys, takes away the inherent suspense and vulnerability.
As far as putting The Blind Man’s abilities to the test, Lang is more than game to show off his skills in portraying this unflinching monster (with a soft side, I guess). Still, Sayagues never gives us something as memorable as the first film’s attempts to put the intruders on his level. Instead, Don’t Breathe 2 gets somewhat repetitive in showing The Blind Man use his “Spidey senses” to resolve all of his conflicts. Sound design is undoubtedly still a plus here, as we are given so much to understand by how the various footsteps, squeaky doors, and other elements provide a map for The Blind Man to guide himself. I just wish a better script could have assisted these moments.
While I had hoped for something stronger as far as a return to the world of The Blind Man, Don’t Breathe 2 feels like a missed opportunity to do more with a solid concept. The attempt to redirect our feelings on the series’ villain is a poor misstep, leaving it up to the film to at least deliver tense setpieces involving people sneaking around and trying not to get killed. These are similarly not all that impressive, leaving a movie without solid footing in multiple areas and a horror film, as a whole, that has run out of oxygen.