The breakthrough with studio horror films in recent years, since the found-footage boom, is a welcome environmental immersiveness. It's a testament to the craft of production designers and camera operators that the movies now so persuasively show us just what it would be like to pick your way through some moldering basement of menace. The first hour of Fede Alvarez's Don't Breathe is an often exemplary you-are-there house-prowling simulation event. Alvarez's camera, like James Wan's in the first Conjuring, weaves patiently through a creaking old Colonial home, trailing a trio of teen burglars down half-lit corridors, around shadowed corners and -- exquisitely, excruciatingly -- through doors you might wish they'd keep closed.
This in-the-moment slowness — an innovation rooted in found footage, in the comparatively static and silent Paranormal Activity films, in the exploration gameplay of Resident Evil and Alien: Isolation -- emphasizes specific physical space and the protagonists' metabolism. It invites viewers into a uniquely active spectatorship. You might not know their names, but you breathe with these people. Alvarez proves adept at springing surprises in these moments, a skill that combines all the art and technique of moviemaking with the architecture of 3D level-planning and the carny showmanship of building a professional haunted house.
You should know that there's a terribly stupid plot point involving a pair of rapes, and that the violence, once it starts, is grimly brutal, protracted and entirely un-supernatural. Too much of the film's back stretch is concerned with watching people try to squeeze or beat the life from each other only to be stopped in these endeavors by a person or pet that had previously seemed to have its life snuffed.