A Psychological Thriller To Sink Your Teeth Into: Panic Room (2002)

Panic Room (2002) is a psychological thriller you can really sink your teeth into.

Jodie Foster is my go-to for psychological horror. Since finding fame as Iris in Taxi Driver (1971), Jodie Foster has been pegged as the gritty female lead for a number of psychological movies like The Accused (1988), The Silence of The Lambs (1991) and Flight Plan (2005).

Directed by David Fincher, Panic Room (2002) had the benefit of Se7en (1995), The Game (1997), and Fight Club (1999). Hot on the tail of Fight Club, Fincher uses a lot of the same camera angles- the rapid zooming in and across the brownstone house to give an idea of its enormity- which show the playground these robbers have to run around in. Fede Alvarez might have been influenced by Fincher in his creation of Don’t Breathe (2016), another psychological thriller which relies on unusual shots to move the audience around the house.

Fincher was quick to distance Panic Room from his other, more critically acclaimed movies by hailing it ‘popcorn movie-making […] good B-movie stuff.’

Newly divorced Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) view a house on Manhattan’s upper West side to start their life afresh, away from Meg’s cheating ex. The estate agent sweeps into the master bedroom on the uppermost floor of the house and Meg’s forehead wrinkles.

‘That’s strange. Is this room smaller than it should be?’ she says.

The panic room nestled behind a secret door in the master bedroom doesn’t seem to be much of a selling point, really.

With the purchase made, the mother and daughter sit down over a glass of wine and cola respectively. Watching her mother pick at a sad salad, Sarah says, ‘Fuck him. Fuck her too.’

They toast to that.

The pair are asleep by the early hours of the morning, Sarah comforted by her night light, and her mother by the glass of wine which follows her from shot to shot. As night falls Burnham (Forest Whitaker), Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), and Junior (Jared Leto) enter the house just loud enough, of course, to wake Meg.

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Junior (Jared Leto) and Burnham (Forest Whitaker)

When Burnham has no luck with the front door key (rookie mistake) he enters the house through a hatch in the roof. The audience no doubt wonders why a house with a security system worth what must be thousands of dollars has such a weak point.

Whitaker fans will be happy to know that Burnham is the thief with a heart, the thug with a conscience. His eyes widens as he sees the night light, and when he lets the other two thugs in downstairs he says the job’s off. That’s it- he’s done. He wasn’t counting on a woman and child being there.

But of course he isn’t. Despite his reservations about Raoul- who increases the stakes by carrying a gun- Burnham grudgingly agrees to continue with the job, just as long as he gets his hands on the millions supposedly hid in the panic room.

Meg spots the thieves on her security cameras.

Panic Room sets everything you need to know up in the first fifteen minutes. A lot like Don’t Breathe in this respect, it dedicates most of the film to the psychological nightmare Meg and Sarah have to overcome, with little preamble about the specifics of their situation. Panic Room has been criticised as having a bare-bones sort of script, but what would be added to the film by seeing Meg’s husband cheat? What can be gained form seeing the messy divorce, custody battle and all? Would the movie have the same effect if, half way through, the plot was still plodding through Meg crying in the bath?

Panic Room is a psychological thriller you can really sink your teeth into. And I love the gender imbalance. Burnham is worried about continuing with the job because his conscience rails against hurting a woman and a child. He does not consider that he will be chased, fought against, defeated. He assumed that the woman and child will defer to his plan, screaming hysterically, arms in the air.

Panic Room is a B-movie which defies all over B-movies: the carefully crafted cat and mouse game makes for an intense watch. It’s more nail biting than popcorn biting.

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Pioneers in the Pit: A Review of Queens Of The Coal Age

Queens Of The Coal age is Maxine Peake’s exploration of the real life female force behind the anti-pit closure fight in Britain.

1993. 12 pits are closed following years of pit closures, years of unfed mouths, years of women seething by the kitchen sink, years of the fight against Thatcher. Four women band together and occupy the Parkside colliery as a call to arms. One clear message: take a stand.

I went into Queens Of The Coal Age knowing that Maxine Peake wrote the play, and vaguely knowing it had something to do with coal pits. The programme told me the rest: Peake spoke to the women against pit closures in a 2016 interview she conducted for her 45 minute radio play: Queens of The Coal Age.

After failed attempts from Dot (Jane Hazelgrove), Elaine (Eve Robertson), Lesley (Danielle Henry), and Anne (Kate Anthony) to protest the pit closures (which began in 1984) the woman banded together and occupied the Parkside colliery.

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Left to Right: Lesley, Elaine, Dot, Anne

The women, disguised as teachers, are taken on a tour of the pit by the manager Des (played by John Elkington).

Elaine: ‘We actually did an official tour. To be honest, once we got down, we had no idea what to do next. And oh we were tired. I’d not slept all the night before.”

Des instructs the woman to get into the lift. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered how the director (Bryony Shanahan) would pull it off. Wracked with nerves, and Dot with claustrophobia, the women step onto the lift platform.

Gravitas should be given to Elliot Griggs (lighting designer), Pete Malkin (sound designer), and Jennifer Jackson (movement director) who managed to transport the women from centre stage at The Royal exchange to the bottom of a coal pit within seconds. If I had just stepped into the theatre and watched the scene unfold, I would have known what was happening.

Finally down in the pit, the women rejoice.

Annie: ‘I put my pit gear on and then we got to the cage, and as soon as it set off down I got hold of your hand and I said, “Elaine, we’ve cracked it.”‘

As it becomes clear the women will not be moved, Des disappears evaporating around the women’s laughter.

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Anne played by Kate Anthony

Justifiably, Anne is the leader. Wife to Arthur Scargill (President of the National Union of Mineworkers 1982-2002) she has the most to lose by rebelling publicly. For their first act of rebellion, the women tidy up the office they have taken as their home. After the paper flower is put into the vase there is not much else to do, except pick at each other.

What follows is four days of sleeping on the ground, fighting with the pit boss Ramsey (also played by John Elkington), and general exhaustion. Dot, Elaine, Anne, and Lesley go hours without food and water. The onlooker might wonder, why did they do it? Hidden in the depths of the mine, they do not know whether their rebellion has peaked public interest.

Peake’s interview gives us some answers.

The women’s motivation was as feminist as it was political.

Betty: ‘My ex had always told me that I was thick, and I was stupid, and it were no use explaining things to me because I wouldn’t understand. All of a sudden because of the strike- and we’d gone speaking all over – I suddenly realised I know as much as some of these people at university; in fact, I know a bit more I’m sure.’

Dot: ‘ […] if there’s something wrong, you try to fix it. It changed a lot of women – there were writers come out of it, poems, songs, there were all sorts come out of that strike – so we achieved something, even if we didn’t stop them closing the pits. Something was evolving, women were changing.’

Peake’s humour sparks like fire crackers in the darkness, illuminating the women and their stories. Elaine is often the butt of the joke, the other women finding fun in her knicker contraband and her lust for the coal darkened pit men…

Butt of the joke
Elaine played by Eve Robertson

She is the only childless rebel in the pit. She is apart from the others, and knows it. Peake frames the coal pit closure strikes as an assertion of women’s power, a renouncement of the ties that bind the ladies to their homes, and an assertion of it. Family and duty to the cause is linked so closely that they have to be separated, one has to come first. Dot found her family on the rally lines, and so she left her kids at home to rebel against the system. She is the first to want to leave. A bout of guilt overwhelms her, and she admits that she sometimes wishes she never had kids. The divide is too much.

Anne: ‘Dot said to me, “I’m tired, Anne, I’ve had enough.” And she says, “I’ll go out on my own,” and I says, “No you’re not. We’ve come down as four, we’re all going out as four.”‘

Peake’s writing for Queens of The Coal Age reminds me of a passage from The Ruins in which the main character lowers a lantern down a pit and watches as it illuminates the walls it passes, and then gets smaller and smaller until it hits the bottom and everything around it is flooded with light.

 

 

 

 

July Book Haul

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I have been a slow reader this month because I have just started a 9-5. When I have bought books this month, I have gone for books with short snappy sections because of my short attention span.

The result is the prettiest book haul I have seen in a while.

Forgotten Women: The Scientists

Forgotten Women The Scientists

I picked this book up at the gift shop on the way out of The Museum of Science and Industry. Zing Tsjeng has compiled ’48 unsung scientific heroes whose hugely important, yet broadly unacknowledged, discoveries have transformed our understanding of the scientific world around us.’

The book lives up to the blurb.

It caught my attention because of the art work and the quippy writing. Tsjeng’s book is far from a fact file that you have to plod through, in fact the streamlined style of dedicating a few pages and a beautiful illustration to each woman makes the book an easy read.

It is the sort of book where you can just open it up and start from any page.

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Nettie Stevens

‘”How could you think your questions would bother me?” she once told a nervous student. “They never will, so long as I keep my enthusiasm for biology; and that, I hope will be as long as I live.”‘

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Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner

‘ […] she believed that anyone could become an inventor as long as they put their mind to it: “Every person is born with a creative mind,” she said. “Every person has that ability.”‘

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Helen Rodriguez-Trias

‘As a medical resident, she founded Puerto Rico’s first health centre for the care of newborns, which led to a 50 per cent decrease in the infant mortality rate of children at University Hospital.’

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Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

‘In her memoirs, Payne-Gaposchkin said that she was often asked by young women for careers advice, which she was happy to give: ‘Here it is, valeat quantum. Do not undertake a scientific career for fame or money… Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask for no other.”

The Little Book of Shakespeare

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The Little Book of Shakespeare is a handy guide to every play the Bard has ever had published, and some that were forgotten in time. It reads as the paper back version of Shakespeare’s Wikipedia page: no stone has gone un-turned in the creation of this book. It is the perfect gift for someone studying Shakespeare at GCSE, A Level, or degree level. The contents page is split into three sections: The Freelance Writer (1589-1594), The Lord Chamberlain’s Man (1954-1603), and The King’s Man (1603-1613), which makes for a comprehensive guide.

Love has gone into every page. The five contributors (Stanley Wells, Anjna Chouhan, Gillian Day, John Farndon, Jake Kingsley-Smith, and Nick Walton) have included feminist readings, on screen and on stage adaptations, sources, themes and relevant quotes for each play. On top of that, the book is a beautiful read.

Of course, I made a b-line for King Lear (written 1605-1606).

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Talking Heads

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Bennett’s Talking Heads is a collection of his first six published monologues, as well as the six he wrote years later. I first heard about Talking Heads years ago when I watched the BBC produced The Outside Dog in a high school Literature lesson. Julie Walters plays Marjory, the wife of the man suspected of several grisly murders. I was surprised to find that a lot of Bennett’s monologues explore the difficulties that middle and old age women face, which I do in my writing.

The monologue style makes for an interesting read. In these down to Earth narratives Bennett interweaves intrigue into the most boring subjects. He gets pages and pages out of Muriel’s venture into the work canteen during her lunch hour in Soldiering On. Despite the object of the speaker’s fascination often being common place, these monologues are never boring, just relentlessly real and gripping.

In A Cream Cracker Under The Settee most of the monologue is filled with just that: after a fall in the living room Doris fixates on a cream cracker she has just discovered under the settee. Unable to get up and unable to call for help, Doris vows to tell her council appointed cleaner about it the next time she comes over.

You would be forgiven for thinking Bennett’s monologues do not focus on the big issues of today. But they do: his characters deal with death, loss, and suffering all within the short compact package of a monologue. Doris cannot accept the limits of old age, Muriel’s inflated sense of self worth is shrunk to the size of a pea next to her life threatening illness, and Marjory battles with the burden of knowledge.

LINKS

Forgotten Women: The Scientists

The Little Book of Shakespeare

Talking Heads

 

 

Banana Bread

Easy to make moist banana bread

This moist banana bread recipe is a classic that keeps everyone happy. The more bananery the better. Here are the ingredients:

  • 140 grams butter
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 50 grams icing sugar
  • 140 grams caster sugar
  • 2 ripe bananas
  • 2 large eggs
  • 140 self-raising flour
  • Optional: banana chips for decoration

This recipe is so bananery I would not recommend using more than two bananas.

Method:

  1. The original recipe recommended heating the oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Because the banana bread can take a while, I always set my oven a little higher and keep an eye on it.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together until the mixture is fluffy. I use a stand mixer for this, but a hand held mixer or a wooden spoon will work just as well.
  3. Add in the beaten eggs slowly with some flour.
  4. When the eggs are mixed with the butter and sugar, fold in the remaining flour, baking powder, and mashed bananas. Make sure the bananas are mashed well, as you do not want clumps of gloopy banana in the baked cake.
  5. Butter a loaf tin and line it with baking parchment. (When I got to this stage I found that I did not have parchment paper. Tin foil works just as well providing you butter it.)
  6. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for about 30 minutes. To see whether the cake is done, stick a skewer into the center. If it comes out clean, the cake is done.
  7. When the cake has cooked allow it to cool in the tin for ten minutes before taking it out. If you try to take the cake out of the tin immediately after it has been in the oven the cake will crumble.
  8. While you are waiting for the cake to cool, mix the icing sugar with 2 or 3 teaspoons of water. Drizzle the icing across the banana bread.

Usually I do not make the icing, but in the interest of being more photogenic I decided to this time.

IMG_0123IMG_0131This rates as the best banana bread I have ever made. It was perfect after 35 minutes at 200C.

Why not try the same recipe for cupcakes or mini loafs? For both of these I recommend 15 minutes at 200C.

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Nom Nom

 

The Crucible: The Insanity of Crowd Mentality

Centered around the search for Witch’s in Salem, Miller’s play is an allegory for the Red Scare that gripped America

When testifying in front of the House of Un-American Activities in 1956, Miller said: ‘Anybody in this room might have thoughts of various kinds that could be prosecuted if they were carried into action, but that is an entirely different story.’

The Crucible (1953) is Arthur Miller’s version of the Salem witch trials in 1692, which ended with 19 women being executed for witch craft. The ICAT (Independent Centre for Actor Training) Manchester group performed the play in The Lowry at only £6 a ticket.

ICAT the crucible
The program

Miller’s vision is an allegory for the Red Scare that gripped America in the 1950’s. Fueled by senator Joseph McCarthy, who was so ardent an anti-communist that the growing feeling of dislike towards the Soviets was labelled ‘McCarthyism,’ the Red Scare originated in the belief that American spies gave Soviet’s the information they needed to produce successful nuclear tests in 1949.

ICAT uses a bare stage which emphasises the stark landscape of late 17th century Salem, Massachusetts. Throughout the whole play there are maybe five settings, each adorned with wooden boxes that function as walls, tables, and as the trial begins, seats for judge, jury, and executioner.

Every character is touched by religion in some way. Talk of the devil hangs heavy in the air. In each conversation his fearful name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. In Salem, the belief in mortal sin shapes the social fabric of the town, and influences the hysteria that pulses throughout the community.

crucible eyes

The play begins with Reverend Parris’ (Max Anderson’s) daughter Betty lying unconscious across the wooden boxes. One night ago the Reverend saw the village girls dancing in the woods and, upon jumping out of the bushes he had been hiding in, shocked his daughter so much that she passed out.

Conspiracy theories abound.

Parris is convinced that his niece Abigail Williams (Phoebe Fischer) has something to do with his daughter’s illness. Under the Reverend’s suspicious gaze, something as innocent as dancing turns into summoning the devil, much to Abigail’s denial. Anderson plays the pious clergyman perfectly: his stern expression and unwavering stature form the basis for the man who survives the play, firmly on the side of the uncompromising courts. Sanity appears in the form of farmer John Proctor (Vince Gray) and Reverend Hale (James Ainsworth), but this is short lived.

Hale warns Parris that he should not prescribe any supernatural reasoning to Betty’s unconscious state. Giles Corey (Guy Thompson) enters the scene, and the sanity ends there.

Satire runs throughout the play.

Corey is quick to claim he saw one of the girls flying over a barn the night they were dancing. As talk of witch craft abounds, Corey mentions that his wife reads books, something he will later regret as she is put on trial for witch craft.

The play centers around the one time affair between John Proctor and Abigail Williams. Gray plays a haunted man who wants to right his wrongs, and a man now wholly dedicated to his wife Elizabeth (Julie Hannan). In one tender scene he tells her: ‘I mean to please you, Elizabeth’. He spurns Abigail’s desire to continue their relationship, and in a fit of jealous rage Abigail accuses Elizabeth of doing the Devil’s work. The strands of plot weave together to form the image of a broken community, so fearful and intent on purifying their town that they accuse their neighbours without reason.

Mary Warren (Carly O’Hare) embodies the stress caused by this toxic society, and the desperate search for the truth. Caught between her master John Proctor who urges her to tell the truth and the lying, spiteful Abigail, Mary crumbles under the intense gaze of her suspicious peers. O’Hare fits the bill for a woman in distress: as Mary is pulled this way and that by John and Abigail, her agonised expression shows her torment.

Ethel and Julius

Mary brings to mind the Rosenbergs. Miller published his play in the year that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed. Thought to have passed atomic secrets to Russia, Julius was arrested on July 17th, 1950. Ethel followed soon after. Shockingly, Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law (David and Ruth Greenglass) testified against the Rosenbergs to lessen their own sentence for the same crime.

Hours before their execution, Julius and Ethel penned a letter to their two young children. One section reads: ‘good cannot really flourish in the midst of evil; (that) freedom and all the things that go to make up a truly satisfying and worthwhile life, must sometimes be purchased very dearly.’

Nothing is won in Miller’s play. The struggling embers of truth die out along with John and Elizabeth. Friends are lost, lovers turn, and the corrupting force of isolated religious superstition ruins all in its path.

 

(Trying To Make) Cookie Monster Cupcakes

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

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I was inspired to create Cookie Monster cupcakes from the fabulous baker at hellotherecupcakes, who has the decoration down to a T. I used the BBC good food recipe for my batch of Cookie Monsters.

After doing some research, I realised that most Cookie Monster cupcake recipes use desiccated coconut to create the fur effect on top of the butter cream. Because I hate coconut, I decided to add blue dye to the butter frosting.

I bought edible eyeballs in case piping my own did not go as planned.

For reference, here is what the BBC good food recipe produced:

My first problem arose when I cooked the batch of cupcakes. The above recipe suggests 50 grams of sugar, 50 grams of butter, and 50 grams of flour. The mixture did not even make six cupcakes, and the five it did make were small.

I tried to decorate the small cupcakes as best I could.

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When I tried to lift him up for a better picture, the cookie fell out of his mouth.

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In the end, I had to put him out of his misery. He was clearly in pain. So I threw away the small batch of cupcakes and started again, this time with 200 grams sugar, 200 grams of butter, and 200 grams of flour.

The second batch was much better and made twelve decent sized cupcakes.

The second problem arose when I realised I cannot decorate cupcakes. It is a lot more difficult than it looks, and while I was trying to smooth the butter cream with a knife I remembered bench scrapers exist, and that I probably should have bought one.

Another problem: the eyes. The shop bought edible eyes made the Cookie Monsters look deranged, so I switched to hand made eyeballs after the third deranged looking cupcake.

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Poor Cookie Monster looking a bit worse for wear

In the end, I did not get the result I wanted. I probably need to improve my piping skills. I bought one of these, and when it arrives I’ll try again.

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This nozzle was listed as ‘NEW GRASS/HAIR/FUR ICING PIPING NOZZLE TIP FONDANT CAKE CUPCAKE DECORATING TOOLS’ which seems very aggressively multi functional, so I have high hopes
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They don’t look as bad from further away

Tips for you…

Quadruple the amount of flour/sugar/butter/eggs the good food recipe suggests.

Purchase a GRASS/HAIR/FUR PIPING NOZZLE TIP from the beginning, and your butter cream will not look as dodgy. Alternatively, use desiccated coconut or blue sprinkles on top of the butter cream.

Use gel dye instead of liquid. Gel has a more intense pigment: I had to use all of the 60ml blue liquid dye I bought at Tesco, and still did not achieve the Cookie Monster colour I wanted.

Bonus…

My friend told me that my Cookie Monster cupcakes look like Nev the Bear cupcakes. So if all else fails, tell everyone that you made a cupcake tribute to Nev the Bear.

Image result for nev the bear

The Best Suspense Movie of The Decade: Don’t Breathe

In the 2013 suspense horror Don’t Breathe the lines of good and bad are blurred

The new Netflix release Don’t Breathe (2016) opens with Rocky’s (Jane Levy’s) bloody body being dragged down the street. This does nothing to dissipate the tension that runs throughout the movie.

Far from the stereotypical horror, Don’t Breathe blurs the lines of good and bad. Director Fede Alvarez does not rely on supernatural horrors, instead he shows us that the most frightening things exist in real life.

Reunited with Levy, who also played the protagonist in his 2013 movie Evil Dead (a contender for the best horror movie of the decade), Alvarez creates a complicated relationship between desire, crime, and ultimately, the will to survive.

Don’t Breathe follows three thieves: Rocky, Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) as they enter the home of an Iraq veteran (Stephen Lang) and attempt to steal his money.

three thieves

 

The thieves are surprisingly easy to sympathise with bar the paper gangster Money, who complicates the robbery by bringing a gun. Alvarez uses Alex to depict the moralistic burglar: he is outraged that Money has brought a weapon, and wonders aloud how it will effect their jail sentence if caught.

Rocky’s home life is less than desirable. She needs to steal from the veteran to take her sister away from her alcoholic mother. This desire leads her to travel further and further into the depths of the man’s house, and discover more horrors along the way.

Alex is more of a mystery. His main motivation appears to be quick cash, and the crush he is harboring for Rocky, which Money quickly shoots down.

‘You think just because you jerk off to her Instagram selfies, that makes you a Romeo?’

In Alvarez’ world everything comes together. At least at first.

Alex father works for a home security company, so they can break into the man’s house without a sound. The man is a reclusive veteran who lives on a street full of abandoned houses meaning the three thieves can enter undetected. Coincidentally, the man is blind.

Any hope of a quick burglary unravels when the trio enter the house.

Money gases the old man to sleep in his own bed. Minutes later the old man appears in the living room, asking, ‘Who, who’s there?’

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Money pulls a gun on the veteran

The audience is almost fooled into thinking the man is a feeble pensioner. Until he attacks Money.

Don’t Breathe is heavy on the visuals and the sound effects. There is scarcely any dialogue as the tables turn on the thieves and it becomes clear that they exist within the blind man’s world. Every movement, every breath, is a step closer to death.

The most memorable scene is one in which the vet flips the electricity switch. He then uses objects he has placed around the basement (a fan here, a piece of wood there) to maneuver around, while Rocky and Alex are running scared. In the darkness their eyes are wide with fright.

 

 

Stephen Lang is perhaps better known for his stage work, but might be recognised for his role in Avatar (2009). His role in Don’t Breathe is certainly a delicate one: his clouded eyes and tense shoulders make him look haunted, and as his backstory unravels, they become representative of the monster he is.

Jane Levy is the perfect counterpart to Lang. When his character is horrific, she is horrified. Ultimately, Don’t Breathe is a battle of wits between Rocky and the veteran, with the audience backing Rocky. Her desire for the better life for herself and her sister urges her forward, much to the dismay of Alex.

‘Rocky. The door’s right fucking there. We can leave right now.’

In the moment where she could leave, Rocky stays and shows herself to be a moralistic person worthy of the audience’s respect. As the movie progresses, the blind veteran falls further from the idealised picture of the victimised elderly man, and becomes a villain in his own right.

‘There’s nothing a man cannot do when he accepts the fact that there is no God.’

 

What is most interesting about Don’t Breathe is the power balance between the two opposing forces. It is a fresh take on the prototypical horror movie, in which the death of the protagonist is a foregone conclusion.