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Don't Breathe 2 Review: One Last Gasp

Someday, someone is going to get around to writing a really good book about the gritty, unsettling horror film movement of the late '00s/'10s. It feels like the movement may have begun with 2008's "The Strangers," stretching through 2011's "You're Next," 2014's "It Follows," and concluding with 2016's "Lights Out." Sure, you could probably stretch the movement to include the Ari Aster films ("Hereditary" and "Midsommar") or the Jordan Peele films ("Get Out" and "Us"), but they are excellent horror movies that feel like their own distinct thing.

Near the end of that movement came "Don't Breathe," a brilliant little flick that pulled off the near-impossible task of making the audience hate home invaders, root for the blind old man defending himself — and then flip the script so effectively that by its conclusion our feelings had been reversed. Taken as a whole, these five outstanding films shared certain themes — home invasion, the need to train oneself in survival, deprivation of senses, commentaries on the decaying urban landscapes of neglected cities like Detroit, the ever-widening gap between the haves and have nots — that bound them together with minimal-or-non-existent movie stars and concept over spectacle, yet each film remained distinctive in its own execution and ability to horrify.

Now, it's a half-decade later, and Hollywood is desperate for sequels — even if none of these films need them. In 2018 we got "The Strangers: Prey at Night," a miserable, unnecessary slog that rubbed away all subtext, turned its killers into Jason and Michael Myers ripoffs, and did nothing other than tarnish the memory of its predecessor. Right behind it is "Don't Breathe 2," arriving not only with a title that doesn't make much sense anymore (unlike the original, there isn't some pivotal moment when a person is holding their breath), but also a plot that feels incredibly, unapologetically forced. Honestly, it's hard to think of a movie with less reason to exist — and keep in mind, earlier this summer moviegoers were asked to sit through "Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard."

"Don't Breathe 2" brings back the Blind Man, now identified as "Norman Nordstrom," but still played by a fearsome, excellent Stephen Lang. This time around, it's eight years after the events of the first film and Norman has moved to the suburbs. He's still reclusive, has a new vicious dog, and also an 11-year-old girl named Phoenix (Madelyn Grace). He has told the girl that he is her father, that they had a house that caught fire, killing her mother — none of this is true — and he's now raising her as his own, teaching her survival skills and a genuine paranoia of the world outside.

Through an absurd, often vague series of events, Phoenix's real-life father Raylan (a solid, menacing Brendan Sexton III) locates the little girl after spending the last eight years behind bars. He breaks into Norman's house with a half-dozen goons whose motivations are vague at best (Is he paying them? He doesn't seem like he has a lot of money), stealing Phoenix away, killing Norman's beloved dog and setting his house on fire. This makes Norman very, very angry.

Get me outta here

Raylan, it seems, has an implausible, ill-conceived plan to reunite Phoenix with her mother — wheelchair-bound and coughing up blood due to the aftereffects of the chemicals and smoke of the meth lab explosion that actually burned their house to the ground. A creepy, disgraced surgeon (Steffan Rhodri) seems all too eager to remove the little girl's heart (without anesthesia, by the way) and transfer it to her on-death's-door mom. This is all happening in Raylan's headquarters, which looks like a long-abandoned YMCA that inexplicably still has electricity.

Going full Rambo, ex-military man Norman uses Raylan's left-for-dead dog to hunt down the thugs. The rest of the film unfolds as you would assume, with him taking down the bad guys in increasingly gory ways. It all culminates with Norman screaming "Now you'll see what I see!" and gouging somebody's eyes out with his thumbs.

Is there any subtext here? Nope. Is Norman's blindness ever used for anything more interesting than the rare moment when the plot needs him to be blind? Nope. Is there any reason why we should be rooting for any of these characters? Only poor little Phoenix, who seems like an entire trilogy of films could be made depicting the mental health experts she'll need to visit for decades to come after being surrounded by all these despicable people.

It's hard to recall a horror movie that has had so many instances when someone says something intended to be serious — and it's hilarious. One villain, who has just had his mouth and nose Super-Glued shut, then been pierced in the cheek with a screwdriver to desperately find a way to breathe, chooses his first sentence to be littered with "dude." Two other villains, out of the blue, just quit. In one scene, someone is dramatically stabbed out of nowhere — only to have his stabber get stabbed dramatically, from out of nowhere.

Norman no longer lives in an "abandoned for four blocks around" area of Detroit where war could realistically be waged. Instead, his suburban home is the setting of a massive battle that goes on for a lengthy time — and apparently the neighbors hate him so much nobody calls the cops on his behalf. The accents on the thugs seem to change from scene to scene, and the whole movie is undermined by the absurdity of this supposed operation due to take place — as well as the supposition that only this woman's 11-year-old-daughter could provide a suitable heart.

Stop! Hammer time

The original "Don't Breathe" had the brilliant concept of a blind man trapping his prey, using his environs — and their lack of familiarity with the house — to turn them into the blind ones. Remember those great scenes of the Blind Man touching the ceiling boards in the basement to measure out his attack? Feeling for various touchstones or grabbing for certain weapons he had placed in precise locations for such circumstances? Turning out the lights on the intruders, as they unknowingly inched slowly towards him? Remember him finding the broken glass with his bare feet?

Nothing like that is in this movie; the Blind Man has unfortunately become Blind Rambo. Another unfortunate decision has been made to have Norman speak way too much, ostensibly giving us more insight into the character but in actuality simply making him harder to sympathize with. It also doesn't help that the voice Lang has chosen to employ feels like Christian Bale Batman meets Billy Bob Thornton "Sling Blade."

It's a shame, because Lang's work in the first film seemed to position him for a well-deserved career ascension along the lines of Tobin Bell — the veteran character actor who became the creepy, haunting soul of the "Saw" franchise. Lang is certainly trying his best here, and his unique mixture of helpless old man-meets-musclebound-old-man continues to play well. But by the end of the movie, his character is begging for death, and after spending all this time with him and his disturbing justifications for murder and rape, it's hard to argue with the guy.

Brendan Sexton III has also been around awhile, and he deserves better. Here's hoping someone makes the horrible mistake of watching "Don't Breathe 2" and makes up for it by saying "That bad guy was quirky, menacing, and interesting. He deserves a massive role in my next blockbuster film." Young Madelyn Grace does exactly what she needs to do, providing the film's only ray of hope and ultimately, reason for caring.

If anything good comes out of "Don't Breathe 2," it might be that there is now really, really no reason to make a "Don't Breathe 3." If you're looking for a horror fix, have yourself a film festival with "The Strangers," "You're Next," "Don't Breathe," "It Follows," and "Lights Out," five provocative, edgy films with something to say that will give you nightmare fuel for weeks. And keep ignoring these pointless sequels — because it feels like only a matter of time before they get around to filming "It Follows You Back."