Back in 2012, when Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez was hired to direct a remake of Sam Raimi’s iconic The Evil Dead, expectations weren’t exactly through the roof. For every inspired horror remake like John Carpenter’s The Thing or David Cronenberg’s The Fly, there have been dozens of pale, soulless imitations of classics that simply go through the motions. Lest we forget, this wasn’t too far removed from the dreaded Platinum Dunes era of horror remakes, which gave us uninspired recreations of everything from The Amityville Horror to A Nightmare on Elm Street. So hopes weren’t at their highest that this relative newcomer, virtually unknown in the U.S., would be able to deliver something that could live up to the irreverent insanity of the original, even with Raimi and Bruce Campbell on hand as producers.
But a year later, the remake (simply titled Evil Dead) did in fact arrive, and while your mileage may vary on how it compares to its predecessor, most would agree that it honored what came before while still carving out a freshly macabre identity for itself. Eschewing the beloved Ash character, and all the expectations that come with him, the film elected to place its focus on the more vulnerable and relatable sister, memorably portrayed by Jane Levy. Rather than the more slapstick, Three Stooges-inspired wackiness of the original, Alvarez’s vision was more gruesome and realistic in its gory thrills, evoking classic body horror while still being over-the-top enough in its presentation to accurately feel like it belonged to the franchise. The film received a positive reception from both fans and critics, and went on to gross almost $100 million worldwide against an estimated $17 million budget, as well as instantly putting Alvarez on the map as a filmmaker to pay attention to.
For his follow-up, he stated that while he would continue in the horror genre, he wanted to make a film that was less focused on gore and more on suspense, without being tied to supernatural elements or being part of an existing franchise. The result was 2016’s Don’t Breathe, a “killer in the house” thriller of sorts where the killer is actually the victim of a home invasion, a blind veteran defending himself from a gang of young crooks looking to break in and rob him, well, blind. But in the first of many twists, the sympathetic characters are actually the burglars (played by Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto), a group of poor kids in Detroit who just want to steal enough that they can move away, and in Levy’s case to take her young daughter away from an abusive household. Meanwhile, the Blind Man, as he’s listed in the credits (played to perfection by Avatar’s Stephen Lang) is portrayed as the monster that our heroes need to evade, his lack of sight more than made up for by his years of combat training and deep familiarity with the layout of his home.
This cat-and-mouse game makes up the bulk of Don’t Breathe’s swift, economical runtime. The film spends just enough time with its trio of thieves beforehand to get the audience invested in their well-being, so that even though what they’re doing is obviously both morally and legally dubious, they’re doing it for reasons we can empathize with (more so in the case of Levy’s young mother than the other two, but since she is given the most focus it balances out). Meanwhile, Lang’s instantly iconic Blind Man evokes both menace and pity in equal measure. Clearly a force to be reckoned with despite his not-insignificant disadvantage, we gradually uncover a number of tragic circumstances in his past, including the fact that his blindness stems from an injury sustained while serving in Iraq, as well as the death of his only daughter by a drunk driver. Despite being contorted into the kind of man who has no qualms with murdering, kidnapping, and sending his bloodthirsty Rottweiler to attack anyone who enters his house, the beauty of Lang’s performance is that we see him experience just as much fear as he instills in others. Even though he has all the tools to make short work of his victims, his blindness forces his other senses to be on high alert at all times to avoid being taken advantage of.
Partially buoyed by the success of Evil Dead, partially based on its own merits as an absolutely stellar horror film, Don’t Breathe found considerable success upon its release, managing to top the former’s box office haul with a worldwide total of over $157 million, despite being made for a smaller budget (less than $10 million) and being a completely original IP. Discussions of a sequel began in earnest not long after, as often is the case any time a genre film enjoys any measure of success. Though delayed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was Alvarez’s commitment to other projects (in the time since he has also directed the too-little-too-late Lisbeth Salander sequel The Girl in the Spider’s Web and all 9 episodes of Apple TV+’s experimental series Calls), it was finally confirmed that Don’t Breathe 2 was in production.
Earlier this week, we finally got a proper first look at the film via its official trailer, as well as a confirmed release date of August 13th. Alvarez has stayed on to produce and co-write, while helming duties have passed on to his Don’t Breathe and Evil Dead co-writer Rodo Sayagues (making his directorial debut). Refreshingly, the sequel does not appear content to simply rehash the structure of the first film, and is shaking things up a bit. Firstly, in a bit of Terminator 2-style role reversal, the Blind Man is clearly the protagonist this time around: not exactly a hero, but at very least the perspective character (Alvarez has attempted to clarify things on Twitter by referring to him not as an anti-hero but an anti-villain, which may have added more confusion than clarity). This is a twist that I’ve longed to see in any horror franchise, an entry that’s squarely focused on the marquee killer rather than another batch of disposable teens (can you imagine a Friday the 13th film taking place from Jason’s point of view? Because I can).
Secondly, the sequel appears to have refashioned the Blind Man as something closer to a John Wick-type character, as he sets out for revenge on a gang who has taken a young girl that he had been caring for as a surrogate father figure. The new film sees him out of his natural element, first in a new house, then out in the wider world as he attempts to hunt these men down and rescue the girl. The trailer indicates that this will be a higher-stakes affair with significantly more violence and gore, which is hardly unexpected when it comes to horror sequels. There is also the implication that the girl is unaware of the Blind Man’s sordid past, and that an element of the film will be him coming to terms with some of the horrible things he’s done.
Speaking of which, we can’t really discuss Don’t Breathe or its sequel without acknowledging the elephant in the room. Near the end of the first film, there is a particularly controversial sequence where it is revealed that the Blind Man had kidnapped the young woman who killed his daughter, and had pumped her full of his semen in order to make her give him a new daughter. When this woman is killed during the events of the film, he attempts to put Jane Levy’s character into the same horrific situation. He claims that he is not a rapist, since he did so through the use of a turkey baster (gross) rather than physically forcing himself on the women. This argument holds about as much water as John Kramer in the Saw films claiming that he’s not a murderer, as though he’s somehow not responsible for the mostly impossible traps that he builds and places his victims into. It’s unfortunate, because this one deeply problematic plot thread is what holds the original back from being an otherwise perfect genre film. Worse still, it now complicates the notion of the Blind Man being treated as a more sympathetic and borderline heroic figure in the sequel.
Despite this disgusting misstep hanging over both films, I am hopeful that the sequel can take the opportunity to acknowledge it and even force the Blind Man to reckon with it in some way. The fact that the new film is coming from the same creative team, as opposed to someone unrelated to the original project, suggests that they are fully aware of what happened in the first film and how it was perceived, and will be responsible enough to not go as far as fully redeeming the Blind Man or making him too likable. We’re too early into this fledgling franchise to determine whether the character will have enough legs to go beyond two entries, but if the Terminator series has taught us anything, it’s that turning your villain into a hero can work once, but it’s very difficult to keep things interesting after that point. Fingers crossed that the Blind Man is able to retain his villainous roots enough to take his rightful place in the pantheon of memorable horror antagonists.