Between COVID and A Quiet Place 2 it might be easy to miss the release of another sensory sequel, Don’t Breathe 2, perhaps the most misjudged movie since United Passions.
A surprise hit of 2016, Don’t Breathe introduced a great villain in the form of The Blind Man (Stephen Lang), the kind of monster upon which horror franchises are built. For reasons known only to Sony Pictures executives, this sequel squanders that potential by making him the protagonist. If you saw the original you may be wondering how they manage that. The answer is they don’t. They hope five years is enough for us to forget what he did in the first film by not mentioning it, and rely on the misconceived amorality of horror audiences to side with whichever psycho we’re told. And to quote an actual line of dialogue: “That’s not cool with me.”
As part of this attempt to redeem the character that only succeeds in diminishing him, Don’t Breathe 2 makes the violent veteran a bit doddery albeit still a killing machine (like John Rambo with a stronger moral compass) and turns him from a man with no qualms about murdering teenagers to someone too kind to shoot an attack dog. While it is common for genre films to discount previous instalments in the series, rarely does a part 2 decide to ignore part 1. Even Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi also produces this series) stopped short of recasting the rape tree as an antihero.
Set eight years after the events that made him such a good villain and such a bad housemate, Norman Nordstrom (please don’t call him that) is caring for a girl (Madelyn Grace) whom he rescued from a house fire. Phoenix (get it?) is the movie’s natural protagonist but is seldom more than a victim, though she is poised to become the hero in the sequel that is set up (because this one ends with her declaring, “My name is Phoenix.”) but probably won’t happen (for the same reason). Essentially she is Schrödinger’s Phoenix, which is handy as this film gives her lots of practice at being in a box.
Where the original used a simple home invasion premise to deliver dark, surprising twists, the follow-up opens with a convenient news report about a spate of organ trafficking and culminates in a meth lab with a swimming pool. It is one of those movies whose interpretation of darkness is so literal as to render the thing barely visible, possibly to disguise the fact that what is meant to be Detroit is actually Serbia (again, unsuccessful). Fede Álvarez hands over directorial duties to fellow Uruguayan Rodo Sayagues, swapping the original’s playful tension for murky nihilism (although a Fulci-inspired climax provides the sole piece of visual interest).
Airless, scareless and hopelessly misguided, Don’t Breathe 2 fails to make us care about its formerly fearsome figurehead, only envy him his blindness.