Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Reviews: Don't Breathe and I Am Not a Serial Killer

Fresh new adventures in low-budget horror.


Screen Gems

"A group of friends break into the house of a wealthy blind man, thinking they'll get away with the perfect heist. They're wrong."

That bare-bones IMDb synopsis of Don't Breathe is blandly accurate. But it doesn't suggest the qualities that elevate the picture above a standard generic shock exercise. The "wealthy blind man," for example, played by Stephen Lang, is more than just a lurching menace—he's a sadly conflicted human being. And there's a wonderfully sick plot twist, about which I will now say as little as possible; in fact, nothing.

The "group of friends" is a trio of young B&E amateurs who are burgling their way around gloomy Detroit in an effort to finance a relocation to sunnier California. Their leader is a hothead called Money (Daniel Zovatto), and he's accompanied by his tough-but-sweet girlfriend, Rocky (Jane Levy), and a dull hunk named Alex. These three have heard about a blinded Gulf War vet who lives alone in a desolate part of town, and is said to be in possession of $300,000 in cash—the proceeds of a settlement that followed the death of his daughter, who was run down by a well-to-do young woman. Money and company decide to pay this guy a visit.

Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez starts cranking up tension right away, as the three robbers approach the target house and immediately encounter the nameless blind man's snarling black Rottweiler. (The dog action throughout the film is pretty alarming.) Once inside the house, they inadvertently awaken the sightless owner and discover that, unlike themselves, he needs no light to make his way around the premises.

What follows is a relentlessly violent game of hide-and-seek, much of it joltingly effective, and much of it—in the grand b-movie tradition—amusingly implausible. (Alvarez, who last directed the 2013 Evil Dead remake, seems to be winking at the more far-fetched goings-on. How likely is it that the blind man, groping down a dark hallway, would be unaware of one of the invaders standing just inches away? And what about all the certain-death fake-outs—characters being whacked to the ground with sledgehammers and yet surviving to be whacked around some more?)

The movie was shot on 16 mm, but it has an unusually polished look; and Pedro Luque's continually roving camerawork adds an action element of its own. The actors are unobjectionable (and Levy, a sparky blonde, is more than that), and the picture doesn't slog on too much longer than it needs to.

The movie's ending virtually demands a sequel, and in normal circumstances I'd say the chances of that happening would be slim. However, with Evil Dead auteur Sam Raimi onboard as a producer here, and a budget modest enough to assure some degree of profitability, I'm prepared to be proven wrong.


I Am Not a Serial Killer

Elsewhere in horror-ville, John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records), a stringy-haired Midwestern teen, is making his way through one of the more novel premises in recent b-movie history. In synch with his heavily suggestive name, John has been diagnosed as an incipient sociopath. He struggles to keep his cool when accosted by high-school bullies (he'd really like to flay them alive), and he chafes under his principal's concern over the papers he turns in—essays about serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Rader (whose motto, frequently expressed, was "Bind, Torture, Kill").

John's life is darkened by his after-school duties as an embalming assistant at his family's funeral home. When a grisly murder takes place in his little town, and is soon followed by a series of similarly ghastly killings, John naturally takes an interest, especially in the puddles of mysterious black goo found at the scenes of the crimes. As fresh corpses pass through the mortuary, he notices that each of them is missing a different body part—a liver here, an arm there. John is convinced there's a serial killer on the loose, and decides that he's just the guy to track this monster down.

Based on a novel by Dan Wells, the movie is a tidy genre mash-up—part teen flick, part gruesome crime tale, and part… well, something else, which I won't go into. Irish director Billy O'Brien (Isolation) knows his way around a low budget, and working with cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank) he creates an evocative atmosphere of smothering small-town ennui. He has also been careful not to over-exploit the story's ickier aspects (although there are plenty of glistening, slippery innards on view).

O'Brien has also been fortunate in his choice of actors. Onetime child star Records (Where the Wild Things Are) turns the emotionally remote John into an improbably winning character (although he's assisted in this by a script cheat—the movie never demonstrates the disturbing obsessions from which John is said to suffer). And Christopher Lloyd has one of his better recent roles as John's neighbor, a lovable codger named Crowley.

The movie ends with a bold plot flip that you may or may not be willing to roll with. And the story leaves enough narrative strings dangling that, once again, a sequel is suggested. In the micro-budget world, this can never be ruled out.