As I made my way into the cavernous theater I noticed a PSA was on. It was the movie’s director, Fede Alvarez, thanking the audience for coming. There’s no better place to see a movie like this, he was saying, than on a big screen in a room surrounded by strangers. I agreed with him, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing such an announcement. Granted, the movie business claims to be on wobbly legs, what with streaming services and various other platforms treating your local Cineplex to a death by 1,000 cuts, but are things so dire that Alvarez has to appear onscreen to thank us for coming?
The audience didn’t seem to need thanks. From what I could tell, they enjoyed this movie for what it was: a 90-minute thriller with lots of blood and violence, and enough twists and turns to keep them, if not on the edge of their seats, at least partly awake. Now and then a female customer would let out a squeal, but it was a generally polite crowd for a horror movie, not like the madness that used to go on during a typical 1980s splatter flick. The plot: a trio of teenage burglars break into the home of a blind man. They think he’s sitting on a big pile of cash. What they don’t count on is that he’s a war veteran with a bad temper, and even without eyesight he can track them down in the dark and punish them. He also has an underground lair worthy of Hannibal Lecter, and is conducting some unsavory activities down there involving artificial insemination. He’s a hoss, too, bulging out of his t-shirt like the Toxic Avenger, and absorbing dozens of blows to the head with various crowbars and hammers, anything the plucky young intruders can throw at him. He’s Jason Voorhees with glaucoma.
After a fairly routine first act, with the trio of thieves trying to solve tricky alarm systems, Alvarez kicks the movie into a frenzy. His directing style is akin to an angry man who knocks the dinner dishes to the floor. He’s a loud director, not bothered with finesse, preferring instead to grab any cliché within reach and throttle it, up to and including: creaking floors, dark rooms, dark hallways, people stuck in enclosed spaces, people falling through glass, women held captive, gardening tools through the gut, gunshot wounds to the head, growling Rottweilers, weird sex stuff, and of course, the menacing blind dude stalking the underage burglars like the big bad wolf stalking the three little pigs. Alvarez, who co-wrote the screenplay, gives each character a dollop of backstory – Roxanne (Jane Levy), for instance, is burgling so she can raise enough money to escape her horrid family and move to California with her little sister – but humanizing these characters feels arbitrary, like something learned in film school.
Ultimately, the movie is no different than a bunch of others that have come out in the past 20 or 30 years. There are some teens, and a bad guy, and around and ‘round they go. Alvarez probably thinks he has done something unusual in that we’re supposed to be cheering for Roxanne to steal from a blind man; the joke is on him because I was rooting for the villain, played with gusto by Stephen Lang.
I’ve heard that horror movies are making a comeback. They can be produced cheaply, and there’s always an audience for them. Look at any streaming movie app, and you’ll find hundreds of them, most made in recent years. But the truth is that the horror movie now occupies the spot where the western stood in the 1960s; the TV networks have a ton of horror programming, while the big studios spend their money on other things. In the meantime, the studios hope a guy like Alvarez can score while not running up the budget. It’s a fair strategy. Still, the preshow ‘thank you’ sounded a bit like an apology.