For those who had the misfortune of missing it, Don’t Breathe was a phenomenal horror flick about a hapless crew of teenage criminals who broke into the home of a blind man to make some easy money. Then the Blind Man turned out to be an unstoppable homicidal maniac who committed acts of unspeakable sexual violence against women, motivated by psychotic grief and a delusionally warped sense of justice. Basically, it was a story of “Bad versus Evil”, in which both sides torture each other and we get to revel in their well-deserved suffering.
When word came in that a sequel was coming, I was confused. Yes, getting more of a great movie is typically good news, but where could we possibly go from the end of the first movie? Well, it turns out the surviving teens are wholly absent, and the violent rapist psychopath is now our protagonist.
“It’s a bold strategy, Cotton, let’s see if it pays off for ’em.”
Don’t Breathe 2 opens some unspecified length of time (presumably a year at most) after the conclusion of the first film. In the opening scene, we see a young girl crawling from the wreckage of a burning house. Cut to eight years later, and young Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) has spent her entire young life as the adoptive daughter of the Blind Man (Stephen Lang). Let’s pause there for a moment.
As a reminder, the Blind Man was a murderer pushed to sexually violent psychosis by the loss of his daughter. Which means that in obtaining and raising a new adoptive daughter of his own, the villain of the last film basically got everything he ever wanted. That’s pretty fucked up on the surface, but there’s more to consider here.
First of all, it bears remembering that the lead of the last film lived to ride off into the sunset after breaking into an old man’s house, robbing him, and trying to kill him. Both characters ultimately got what they wanted at a heavy cost, so it all balances out in a demented sort of way.
Secondly, Blind Man is absolutely obsessed with making sure he doesn’t lose a second daughter. As a direct result, though the relationship between them is a loving one, he’s still a domineering father who raised Phoenix with rigorous and extensive survival training.
More importantly, Phoenix has no contact with any kids her age. She’s completely home schooled, and the Blind Man doesn’t have any social life. Her only lifeline to the outside world is Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila), an army vet who buys the plants grown in Blind Man’s greenhouse and occasionally takes Phoenix into town on tightly controlled day trips. Blind Man is all about control, and Phoenix is quickly getting to the age where she needs some degree of freedom.
The Blind Man got everything he ever wanted. And he’s in very real danger of ruining it or getting ruined by it, just like everything else he touches.
Things inevitably hit the fan when Phoenix crosses paths with Raylan (Brandon Sexton III). Long story short, Raylan is the leader of a violent gang of meth dealers, he and a lot of his cronies are veterans (dishonorably discharged), and they’re somehow involved with an organ trafficker. And for reasons I won’t discuss here, Raylan has taken a particular interest in Phoenix. Thus he and his crew break into the Blind Man’s house to try and kidnap her.
Remember, we’re not talking about a few stupid juvenile delinquents here — these are professional killers armed and trained for war. These are hardened criminals associated with meth dealing and illegal organ harvesting. Which means that the unstoppable rapist homicidal maniac now has a worthy opponent. And both sides are going to make each other suffer in a big way.
The last movie was a battle of Bad vs. Evil. This one is a battle of Evil vs. Hellish, with Good (that’s Phoenix, remember) caught in between them. Fucking brilliant.
It’s perhaps worth noting that while both films were written and produced by the team of Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, Alvarez directed the first one while Sayagues directs the second one. There is indeed a significant tonal shift in between the two movies. For one thing, Alvarez had Evil Dead (2013) and numerous short films under his belt before directing the first film while this is the first time Sayagues has directed anything, and that disparity in experience is plainly visible. Not that Sayagues does a poor job — far from it — but the first film was tight and painstakingly constructed in a way that the sequel simply isn’t. Then again, the first movie was novel and innovative in a way that a sequel — by definition — wouldn’t be. Additionally, the first film was set primarily in one house with a cast of four, while the sequel has a lot more moving parts because it opens up the world of the story as any good sequel should do.
Moreover, the first movie made for an exceptional work of slasher horror because our protagonists weren’t capable of defending themselves. By comparison, the second film is all about perfectly capable murderers hunting each other. Yes, Phoenix makes for a vulnerable target, and she is technically the protagonist in that her development is the primary arc of the film. And to be clear, Phoenix is quite proactive and does everything she can to survive without making unreasonably stupid mistakes. Even so, Phoenix is tragically limited by virtue of being a ten-year-old girl, and she’s mostly reduced to acting as a MacGuffin or a Damsel to be rescued.
This is not a formula for a horror film, it’s a formula for an action film. This is effectively an action film in a horror franchise, and it’s an odd fit. That’s not to say it doesn’t work, necessarily, it’s just odd in a way that’s tough to explain.
For instance, when the first movie had all those sound design flourishes, omitting all score to emphasize the characters’ breaths and footsteps, it was terrifying because it underlined the need for dead silence in the face of a blind killing machine with super-sensitive hearing. But when the sequel tries the same trick, it’s… cool, I guess? Sure, it’s a beautifully done sound effect and it works in the context of a cat-and-mouse scene, but it’s not the same and it’s not as effective.
With an action movie, we typically expect dizzying choreography and fight scenes designed to be thrilling. With a horror film — most especially a slasher horror film, which is more or less what the first movie was — we expect the main characters to run and struggle to survive because getting caught by the monster means certain death. Though we do get a couple of impressive stunts, the fight scenes aren’t long enough or numerous enough for a decent action film. And though we do get a couple of gory deaths — in addition to some of that “cat-and-mouse” slasher horror action with Phoenix when she isn’t being passed around like a football — the surprises aren’t scary enough or numerous enough for a horror film.
Instead, the film settles nicely into a general “suspense” kind of genre. From scene to scene, the film is focused on such questions as “Where’s the trap?” and “How will the characters get out of this one?” and “What is this character really hiding and what do they want?” That sort of thing. It’s a bit of a jarring tonal shift from the first film to the second, but it works.
A significant part of why it works is because of the subtle connective tissue between the two films. The opening shot clearly and specifically calls back to the opening shot of the first movie, establishing a connection between the two straight away. And I’m furious right now because if I was at liberty to get into spoilers, I could make a meal of all the cleverly implicit ways that Phoenix’s arc calls back to that of Rocky in the previous film. In the story beats and camera movements, the sequel rhymes with the first film beautifully in a way that never once feels like a lazy rehash. Masterfully done.
But of course what really makes this work are the two leads. Madelyn Grace proves herself to be a superb young talent, gracefully providing the film with a solid anchor and a sympathetic moral arbiter. She elevates the role into something far greater than a mere plot device, and she sells the character’s fortitude where it’s necessary. Outstanding work.
As for the Blind Man, of course Stephen Lang does a marvelous job reprising a character he already slammed out of the park. But far more importantly, he sells the character’s suffering. The movie never lets us forget that Blind Man is in fact a monster who’s done unforgivable things. At the start of the film (and all through the previous film, come to think of it), Blind Man is simply trying to get back what was unfairly taken from him, regardless of what he has to do or who gets hurt along the way. But as the film unfolds, Blind Man starts to realize that he can’t run away from his past sins — indeed, his past sins are exactly why he suffers even more than he already has and loses whatever he has left.
The Blind Man is motivated to rescue this girl and make it possible that she’ll somehow have a better life because at this point, that’s his last remaining hope for any kind of salvation. But in the end, the film is good enough to leave it up to the audience. Whether you think he redeems himself at the end or if he was long past redemption even before we met the guy, that doesn’t make it any less satisfying to watch the Blind Man get beaten to shit for the sake of rescuing a sympathetic character.
Also, it’s worth stressing that the film makes novel use of the Blind Man’s central gimmick. Though his other senses are highly advanced and he has the benefit of his training as a top-of-the-line Navy SEAL, the Blind Man’s greatest strength proves to be his ingenuity and resourcefulness. This is most especially obvious in the back half, when the Blind Man is finally pushed out of his house and into unfamiliar territory. Through the entire first movie and half of the second film, Blind Man had the distinct advantage of fighting in a house that he intimately knew from top to bottom. When compelled to fight in unfamiliar territory, he has to get crafty, and the results are a joy to watch.
Though Don’t Breathe is definitely the superior film, I still had a great time with Don’t Breathe 2. The sequel isn’t anywhere near as effective as a horror film, but the brutality is still unflinching, the moral ambiguity is still compelling, and I must give a kind of grudging respect to any filmmakers who’d go to such fucked-up lengths in making sure the characters suffer. It also helps that the two lead performances are genuinely captivating, there are so many genuinely clever action scenes in here, and watching the Blind Man fight for his life felt so good after sitting through the first one.
When all is said and done, this sequel makes sure that Rocky, Phoenix, and the Blind Man all get the endings they deserve. That’s the most I could ask.
The two films are different enough that anyone could technically walk into the sequel cold, but it won’t be the same. You really need to see the first film to appreciate why the Blind Man does what he does, and why he deserves everything he gets. If you haven’t seen the first movie, you totally should. If you’ve seen the first movie and you haven’t seen the sequel yet, you totally should.