In 2016’s Don’t Breathe, some desperate young Detroit thieves break into the house of a blind veteran (Stephen Lang), hoping to make off with his lawsuit payout for the death of his daughter. Blindness, however, does not leave the man helpless — if anything, his combat-honed viciousness and familiarity with the environment give him the edge once things spiral rapidly and violently out of control. The surviving thieves discover a woman chained in the basement who, we later learn, the Blind Man has impregnated via semen-filled turkey baster to replace his daughter. Though the woman is killed in the early-film confusion, the Blind Man manages to capture one of the thieves and string her up in preparation to, uh, try again.
I say all this up front because it mostly doesn’t come up in Don’t Breathe 2. The Blind Man — whose name I did not catch in the film or the credits but is apparently the cutesy, comic book-alliterative Norman Nordstrom — has seen the error of his ways: why deal with the hassle of nonconsensually generating a shiny new child when you might just as easily trip over a pre-owned one in the street? He and his very large dog happen upon such a girl (Madelyn Grace), left unconscious following her escape from a house fire, and after regrettably christening her “Phoenix,” Norm raises her as his own daughter. He never quite comes up with a believable lie about what her mother was like, even as eight years pass.
This is, more or less, the premise you have to contend with in Don’t Breathe 2. The film even opens with a bait-and-switch, where Phoenix flees from a dog through the trees and seems to get away over a fence before the familiar figure of the Blind Man rises ominously in the background until, well, surprise! It’s all a training exercise, a bit of fatherly doomsday prepping for a girl who is not actually in peril from the guy we, who have watched the prior film or have maybe heard about the whole turkey baster scene, recognize as a murderous rapist. The ones to worry about are the greaseball organ thieves who come calling. People really can change.
Rejected Character Names, Presumably: Beauregard Breathe, Hamilton Huff
The pure audacity is, in a way, the film’s hook, the transformation from villain to what is at least within spitting distance of an antihero. Screenwriters Rodo Sayaygues Fede Álvarez remain the same (though Sayagues now takes over directorial duties from Álvarez, who still produces), so: how have they done this, why have they done it, and do they honestly expect it to work? From one perspective, it happens all the time elsewhere, countless popular media adversaries gradually Vegeta’d over time because there is something inherently compelling about the “bad” character doing the “right” thing. Maybe they’re initially doing it for reasons that are far from altruistic, but they’re doing it all the same and we respect that perhaps more than we respect characters who were onboard from the beginning. It suggests a level of grave drama and dire stakes: surely things must be serious if this character is going through a reluctant change of heart?
The depiction of ideological change is powerful because it otherwise happens so little in the world we all must live in. But still, plot reasons sometimes appear to massage a sudden about-face; the Arnold cyborg in Terminator 2 is, we understand, now reprogrammed and not even the same specific entity from the original film. We are also quite forgiving of dastardly offscreen behavior, or at least anything that hasn’t hit too close to home for the characters we already like. And therein lies the Don’t Breathe 2 dilemma, because we have very emphatically watched Norm here open the refrigerator for a tall glass of frozen jizz, melt it on the stove, suck it up into a turkey baster, and prepare for another injection before he is bonked on the head just in time and has the device shoved down his throat.
The first film is aware of this intense escalation. That’s the point, to not just cozy up to a lineage of sleazy exploitation but to finally come down hard on one side after half a movie of nudging audience allegiance back and forth. The thieves are in the wrong, but we’re shown unhappy home lives and that favored emotional shorthand, the very young girl (in this case, a sister) who could really use a better environment to grow up in. We understand why they go through with the robbery, and if we are not on their side once they’re confronted by Norm, we are more easily swayed when he coldly kills one of the thieves when he doesn’t have to. And yet even then, he kills the one we’re supposed to dislike while the survivors reject a clear opportunity to just leave with nothing to show for it. The eventual brandishing of the turkey baster is the final word, the until-now-withheld answer to whether we should have any doubt where our sympathies lie. It’s also, beyond pure shock value, the most conventional part of the film, the point where it abandons a more intriguing ambiguity.
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(Continued) Winston Wheeze, Roscoe Respire, Garland Gasp
That being the case, Don’t Breathe 2 decides we’re better off not hearing Norm’s sordid history before the ending except in the broadest terms (and even when the past comes up, it’s quite vague). The film wheels out every emotional shorthand in the book: he has a dog, and he likes dogs, and he is reluctant to hurt any dog at all as opposed to this new batch of home invaders, who do not even particularly care for their own dog. There’s also the fatherly bond with the apparent altruism of just doing it all for the kid and offering her protection when she has no one else. Phoenix gazes longingly at a local children’s shelter and is generally unhappy with her rather strict home life, but that’s just “Dad” being overprotective; he wants her to run survival drills and doesn’t like her going into town until she gets them right. Horror-wise he is, on the whole, a more vulnerable, less overtly slasher-esque character, which is at least partially explained by the fact that he’s tangling with grizzled, greasy criminals rather than the last film’s amateur thieves who had spent more of their lives as children than as adults.
If Don’t Breathe 2 is a bit mechanical in dealing with its protagonist problem, it does at least contrive some amusing murder contraptions in the interim. In storied horror sequel tradition, it is now not quite enough for the Blind Man to up and shoot somebody. We’ve seen that already. Now, Norm must break out the super glue or blow things up. Phoenix finds her way into absurdly perilous situations, like being trapped in a big metal box rapidly filling with water toward an electrical wire. There’s a scene where the characters teeter on the edge of an enormous, emptied swimming pool while handcuffed to an automatic wheelchair. The goofy, gory ingenuity is, I must admit, tough to write off in our current soup of art-horror trauma monsters.
But like its predecessor, the best parts of Don’t Breathe 2 are when it’s complicating the narrative rather than tidying it up. Norm has lied to this young girl, in a continuing thematic through-line about the false purity of the parental bond, something like counterprogramming to the boom of dadsploitation entertainment. The invaders hesitate to kill Norm in front of Phoenix, but he has no such qualms. There’s enough here to avoid a straightforward redemptive story, but Don’t Breathe 2 can never quite bring itself to dismiss the idea entirely. Even at the much lower budget level of a horror movie sequel, that’s franchising — the image of jacked Stephen Lang roving through the darkness on his way to kill somebody is a memorable image, a foundation to build on that’s more persuasive than nothing at all. It’s how you end up with a late sequence that answers the question of what a Batman movie might look like if he was a sightless sexual predator. Essentially, the big failing of Don’t Breathe 2 is that no one who worked on its predecessor thought to leave more wiggle room for a sequel.