Stephen Lang is shown in a scene from “Dont Breathe.” (Gordon Timpen/Sony/Screen Gems via AP)

Stephen Lang is shown in a scene from “Dont Breathe.” (Gordon Timpen/Sony/Screen Gems via AP)

Sadistic ‘Don’t Breathe’ delivers real scares, but goes awry

The old nursery rhyme about the three blind mice is scary enough. What if the mice aren’t blind, but a cat is?

This — sort of — is the premise of “Don’t Breathe” a sadistic but effective exercise in mousetrap suspense.

The trap is a lonely house in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood—the area’s so far gone, nobody is around to hear gunshots or screams.

Three young people decide to rob the place, because they think the ex-Marine who lives there has a stack of cash sitting in his safe. The kids are the thuggish Money (Daniel Zovatto), his desperate girlfriend Rocky (Jane Levy, from “Suburgatory”), and the inexplicably sensitive Alex (Dylan Minnette).

The Marine (Stephen Lang, from “Avatar”) is in the home when they break in. But they don’t care — the guy is blind. How hard can this be?

As we discover for 88 grueling minutes, plenty hard. Throw in a guard dog and a few easy-to-guess twists, and you’ve got the recipe for an evening of armrest-squeezing distraction.

Director Fede Alvarez (he did the glum “Evil Dead” remake) and his co-author Rodo Sayagues have invented a collection of reasons our three intruders can’t easily get out of the house, and with authentic tough hombre Lang in the adversarial role, we never doubt this guy’s ability to fight back. It’s a suitably claustrophobic situation.

In an odd way, “Don’t Breathe” is a reversal of “Wait Until Dark,” the 1960s suspense movie with Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman menaced in her apartment. In this case, the victim becomes the predator.

There are some legitimate scares, and some slick surprises. The heroes must do some stupid things in order to keep it all going, and I think the film goes seriously off the rails at about the one-hour mark — it’s as though Alvarez and Sayagues needed to come up with something really outrageous to out-do their competition.

Coming so soon after Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room,” a truly nail-biting picture about escaping a small space, “Don’t Breathe” falls short by comparison.

And this film is slick and nasty in a way that prevents it from being pure escapist fun. “Don’t Breathe” is genuinely clever, but it’s all “see how they run” and no soul.

“Don’t Breathe” (2½ stars)

A sadistic but effective exercise with three young robbers getting more than they bargained for when they invade the home of a blind ex-Marine (Stephen Lang). Director Fede Alvarez definitely has some slick moves, although the film goes seriously off the rails at the one-hour mark.

Rating: R, for violence, language

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall

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