Phil Villarreal's novel, Zeta Male, is available at Amazon.
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Of all the cinematic trickery pulled off by the clever and conniving horror flick "Don't Breathe," perhaps its greatest trick is to get you to sympathize and pull for what would be the villains of almost any other movie.
In a run-down part of Detroit, street thugs (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) break into a house with the goal of making off with hundreds of thousands of dollars kept by an old blind veteran who has been holed up since his daughter was killed in an auto accident. Much of the movie is set inside the house, with the veteran, played by Stephen Lang, hunting down his tormenters, who poison his dog, try to gas him to sleep and break his windows.
That the film manages to get you cringing and whimpering when Lang lumbers over to bash his tormenters' heads in, rather than go Barney Stinson and root for what they've got coming. That's a testament to Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, who proves to be a master minimalist, using sparse dialogue and spartan visuals to lure you in to his dank rat trap of a film. Alvarez, who cut his fangs on the tepid "The Evil Dead" remake in 2013, shows he's capable of doing a lot more when working with fresh material.
Lang, a bit part actor who usually plays a background thug or soldier, is a breakout star here, showing a brutal athleticism and knack for freaking the hell out of you by popping up when you least expect to execute a special forces takedown he honed in 'Nam.
The unlikely sympathy shift is also due to the acting, with Minnette's calculation and sensitivity and Levy's mama bear ferocity. These are people who have lived out a string of increasingly poor choices that have led themselves to this moment, but now that they are in way over their head you can't help but grit your teeth and hope they'll manage to untangle themselves from the spider web.
Clocking in at under 90 minutes, "Don't Breathe" is a short, taut experience that zips by in what seems like half that time. Its frenzied pacing helps it overcome its roughest section, an increasingly bizarre climax laden with more false endings than the house has hidden nooks for Lang to jump out of. Each of those precedes a surprise new act that bends its already creaky rules even further, which makes it all the more jarring -- yet somehow earned and appropriate -- when the movie sort of just stops, as if out of breath -- rather than ends.
You may walk away with a scarred psyche and enough nightmare material to stock your subconscious up through the winter, but also get some savvy home security tips and solid career advice to stay out of the home robbery racket.
RATING: 3 stars out of 4