Don't Breath and Us

how home invasion horror made america face its own shadow

Movies like 'Us', 'Don't Breath' and 'The Purge' provide allegories of America as a place where wealth is hoarded, violence is indigenous and the outsider is always suspicious.

by Amy Roberts
11 April 2019, 6:00am

Don't Breath and Us

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

The location may be different, but the idea of ‘home’ essentially means the same thing to everyone everywhere: it’s the place where you feel the greatest sense of freedom, safety and belonging.

In many home invasion movies of the past decade, however, the home represents far more than this. In movies like Us, The Purge and Don’t Breathe, the home has become a combative, critical metaphor for America itself. One that’s used to violently unravel the tough, showy facade of modern America, to reveal the troubling, dark reality underneath.

These are movies that showcase a post-recession nation where economic anxieties make every home feel nebulous and unsafe. Where class divides have grown ever more conspicuous and where the top 1% of the country own 40% of its wealth. But they’re also movies that are born of an extended post-9/11 climate, where fear of the outsider and a rhetoric of xenophobia has grown (and all this despite proof that most terror threats are homegrown and domestic). As a result, the most successful home invasion horrors of the past decade suggest that it may not be outsiders the nation should be fearing -- but Americans themselves.

It’s an idea that Jordan Peele confidently asserts during the second act of Us, a movie in which the affluent Wilson family are violently terrorised by doppelgängers who invade their holiday home. Understandably scared witless, family matriarch Adelaide questions her double, Red, as to who she and this family actually are. Her reply? “We’re Americans”.

It’s a sledgehammer of a statement, and one made all the more poignant at a time when many are being denied the right to call America their home. As Red continues to make her voice and motives heard, (spoilers ahead) we learn that these doppelgängers (known as the “Tethered”) have been leading heinous, parallel lives underground, enduring all manner of suffering so their prosperous other halves could thrive above. Even when confronted with the reality of their shadow selves, the Wilson family fail to see that these people and their problems are part of them -- albeit the darkest side imaginable -- and that they may have as much of a right to freedom, happiness, and survival as they do.

In discussing the movie, Peele has stated that his inspiration came from people failing to look “at their part” in creating this current “dark time” of America. “As a nation we tend to fear the outsider. We point the finger at the mysterious invader ... We also point the finger at people who aren't like us, who didn't vote like us, who live across the street from us.”

“This movie is about the notion that maybe we are our own worst enemy,” he said.

It’s worth noting that one of the most important, and certainly prescient, home invasion horror movies about America was actually made by an outsider -- Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Released in 1997 (with an American remake also helmed by Haneke in 2007), the film sees a bourgeois Austrian family (Haneke had wanted to make a film set in the United States, but for practical reasons had to set it in Austria) tortured and killed by two cartoonish sadists who invade their holiday home. Speaking in 2007, Haneke stated the film is about “Hollywood’s attitude towards violence”, wherein American audiences are prompted to applaud acts of murder and brutality, so long as they’re committed by a character perceived to be a hero.

It’s certainly an idea toyed with in Us, where Adelaide’s credibility as the hero becomes more and more questionable as her violence increases in severity. The perception that American violence is heroic so long as it’s being done to protect American values is something that this cycle of home invasion movies seem intent on challenging. And there’ve been few modern movies that have so brazenly done so as James DeMonaco’s 2013 The Purge.

The film follows apathetic family man James (Ethan Hawke), a security salesman who feels no guilt for having gained financial prosperity off the back of the annual “Purge” -- a day when all crimes are temporarily legal for 12 hours and where those who can’t afford to protect themselves are mercilessly massacred. Most notably, it’s a night that James believes has “saved this country” from such social ills as crime, unemployment and poverty, because that’s the narrative being propagated by the media. That remains true until he finds himself and his family targeted by a pack of preppy, affluent money boys after taking in a wounded, underprivileged man that they’d been joyfully hunting (a Purge refugee, for all intents and purposes). The violence of The Purge soon appears a lot less patriotic when James is at the receiving end of it.

As Hawke himself suggested while promoting the movie, “We love guns. We love violence. And then we hate it when it happens”. The metaphorical US of The Purge home is a seemingly impenetrable fortress which only becomes vulnerable when someone chooses to let in a desperate outsider. Except, as James discovers while his home crumbles around him, the true vulnerability of this all-American home has less to do with helping the underprivileged, and more to do with supporting a system that promotes their dehumanisation and murder. Like Us, the true villain of The Purge isn’t a mysterious outsider, but an all too familiar entity. Rather than the poor people he’s been told to fear, it’s the affluent Americans that James most aspires to be who prove to be the most monstrous, and for whom he has indirectly enabled the murder sprees of in return for great privileges.

They’re motifs we see time and again in these films: the wealthy American home transformed into an inescapable nightmare reflective of social discord; the American dream that great privilege is worth anything and everything to obtain and to protect; the mysterious invader revealed to be far more familiar or relatable to the main protagonist than originally assumed.

It’s why Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011) sees an affluent family targeted by a masked gang of army veterans, only for it to be revealed that the murder spree is an inside job (turns out some of their children just wanted their goddamn inheritance early). It’s also why Marcus Dunstan’s The Collector (2009) has a heavily-in-debt handyman breaking into the upscale family home to steal a ruby, only to discover an even greater and more violent threat has broken in before him: a masked killer who targets the wealthy not for their money, but for fun.

Fede Álvarez’s Don’t Breathe, meanwhile, follows these motifs while offering a shrewd reversal of home invasion tropes, to great effect. The movie makes the audience side with an underprivileged thief, rather than the blind army veteran of the home she’s invading, as we discover the veteran is hoarding a fat wad of cash while the rest of his Detroit community continues to be economically shattered. As a Vox review of the film perfectly posited about the symbolism of the blind veteran’s grand home in the middle of a destitute street, “Don’t Breathe’s metaphorical America is a capitalist nightmare you would have to be utterly desperate to want to enter -- which exactly describes the refugees many Americans are concerned with keeping out.”

This cycle of films provide allegories of America as a place where wealth is hoarded, violence is indigenous, the outsider is always suspicious, and every polite all-American white bread archetype who shows up at the door is a kindly neighbour until they have a gun to your head. It’s no longer the case that we wonder what the monster is, but more who the monster is. And if these movies are anything to go by, more often than not the answer may be: they’re us.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Jordan Peele