By: Heather Seebach
**Warning: The following contains major spoilers about Don't Breathe**
**Warning #2: The following is a discussion about rape on film**
Fede Alvarez's thriller Don't Breathe dominated the box office this past week and garnered largely positive reviews from critics and filmgoers alike. There was, however, a moderate backlash against one particular sequence in the film. It was the very same sequence that, right when it happened, I knew people would either love or hate it. Personally, I love it and will explain why as I address some of the complaints against it. The sequence in question, of course, is when Rocky (Jane Levy) is captured, tied up, and threatened with forced insemination by way of a turkey baster.
As any horror fan knows, rape is hardly off-limits when it comes to the genre. It has been used in ways that range from tactful to downright trashy. In my eyes, rape is a particularly heinous form of assault. Things like torture, castration, animal abuse etc. are similarly brutal tactics that are used in horror films to elicit fear and disgust. To make a good film, of course, any of these elements must be used within the context of the story and must serve a purpose. It is when rape, torture, etc. become excessive and sexualized that their use becomes trashy and cheap. Basically, anything that is done just for the sake of shock is lazy horror writing. Some people love easy, shock horror and that's okay - to each their own - but I am speaking to what I consider good screenwriting in the horror genre.
Having said that, I will now dive into Don't Breathe. Let's get something clear: the act with which The Blind Man is threatening Rocky absolutely IS rape. That is never in question. There is a moment when he says, "I never forced myself upon her. I'm not a rapist" in regards to his other kidnapped victim. Some critics have misinterpreted that line as justifying his actions, suggesting the writers do not consider this rape. That is absolutely not the case here. The Blind Man is a delusional psychopath who BELIEVES what he is doing is morally acceptable. That line of dialogue is there to show the audience just how crazy this man is - it is NOT suggesting he is not a rapist. What he did to the previous victim - and what he threatened to do to Rocky - absolutely IS rape. This is the moment in the film when the writers want us to NOT sympathize with this guy.
Another common complaint against the sequence argues that it is a cheap use of rape for shock's sake. To that, I disagree completely. For one thing, Rocky escapes and is not raped. The THREAT of rape is enough to instill horror in the audience, but the filmmakers did not see the need to follow through on showing any actual rape (to Rocky or the other woman). Furthermore, I love how they un-sexualized the act by removing the penis from the equation. Again, it is still rape, no argument there, but the very aspect that typically serves to exploit rape scenes - the sex - is removed. We the audience are still horrified, possibly even moreso, at the thought of being violated with this man's semen and a kitchen object. I think that is an interesting, unique take on a rape threat. If anything, it emphasizes the reason rape is so horrifying: loss of choice. The very idea of being forced to carry a psychopath's child is terrifying and I doubt many filmgoers (men especially) consider that particular element when it comes to rape scenes.
Another argument I have heard is that the sequence does not fit the tone of the film, hence why those critics feel it is used just for shock's sake. I agree that it represents a tonal shift in the narrative, but I actually loved that! Here is a mainstream film that, while tightly made, was following all the usual beats of a home invasion thriller until, suddenly, it wasn't. Suddenly, it ventured into nutty territory and it is great! And how incredibly rewarding was that moment when Rocky shoved the turkey baster full of semen into her attacker's mouth?! I did not see the whole sequence as a "shocking twist" and I am not sure why others do. Perhaps the marketing is to blame for that. I just saw it as peeling back another mysterious layer on this blind man as the intruders ventured deeper into his home. The Blind Man goes from poor disabled veteran to dangerous, sick monster. The narrative was designed to make the audience question their sympathies and I find that interesting.
Don't Breath took heat for threatening the protagonist with rape, while films with long, gratuitous rape scenes get the seal of approval from horror fans. Why is that? Are the graphic rape scenes in I Spit On Your Grave and Last House on the Left made "okay" because they are followed by revenge? What about Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead? Raimi himself admitted he used poor judgement when he included the tree rape scene, as he was young and immature. There is that unnecessary shot of Ellen Sandweiss' naked breast. Neither Sam nor the viewer can deny that the scene was going for shock and exploitation, and yet, it is revered by horror fans everywhere, including the same people who loathe Don't Breathe's attempted-rape scene. Why is that? One answer I heard is, "Well, the tree rape is just SO ridiculous." And a man who keeps his spunk in a basement and injects it with a turkey baster isn't ridiculous? I think the tree and the turkey baster are actually alike in that way, and I wonder how much that was intentional on Alvarez's part (considering his existing relationship with Raimi).
Clearly, there seems to be a double-standard when it comes to what is "acceptable" rape in cinema. Tone, again, seems to play a role. When Straw Dogs and Deliverance did it, it was fitting, right? When the other end of the spectrum, say, ridiculously exploitative movies like Death Wish 3 or A Serbian Film did it, genre fans tolerated or even defended the use of rape. Whether the tone is serious or outrageous, rape seems to be "accepted" but not in-between, like with Don't Breathe.
I think we all can agree on this: rape is NEVER okay. It's all horrifying, and that is why horror films love to use it. The most responsible things a good filmmaker can do are, A) Not sexualize the act; and B) Use it fittingly in the narrative. Is the attempted rape a crucial plot point in Don't Breathe? Not really; however, I believe the film strongly benefits from its inclusion. By turning that strange corner, this mainstream horror dipped its proverbial toe into exploitation territory without becoming cheap and trashy, and thereby opened up an interesting, unpredictable avenue. The Blind Man's threat against Rocky elicited such gasps of horror from the crowd both times I saw this film. And it only took the implication of a horrific act to inspire that response. Hell, when he put the scissors up to her pants, I winced. I rarely ever wince. I consider that a win for horror.
I enjoyed the hell out of Don't Breathe all-around. It has fantastic cinematography and music; the tension is palpable; and all the crowd-pleasing moments really pay off. It has some flaws, for sure, but this verbal beating it has taken over this so-called "rape dungeon" sequence is unfair. I completely understand if someone has an aversion to sexual assault (or the implication thereof) on film, or feels such scenes could trigger traumatic memories, but I also do not feel that any movie should be censored for that reason. It is up to each individual to decide what to watch or not to watch. As these types of scenes go, the one in Don't Breathe is restrained, tactful, and unique. It livens up an otherwise paint-by-numbers plotline and forces its audience to think about the horrors of sexual assault in a non-traditional way.