With Don't Breathe 2, it becomes officially impossible not to conclude that co-writers Fede Álvarez & Rodo Sayagues just don't know how audience identification and sympathy work. Their 2016 thriller Don't Breathe (directed by Álvarez) was broadly liked, but certainly not by me: I found it to have wantonly miscalculated in assuming we'd effortlessly side with three not-especially-sympathetic teenagers in attempting to steal from a lonely old blind man, whose sole obvious point of villainy in the opening acts was that - ewww! - his milky white eyes were lit to look creepy. And I think the film even kind of knew that, since that film's indescribably tasteless twist leading into the third act served very little obvious narrative function than to make sure we hated the old man, now revealed as a rapist and murder with a cave under his suburban home to imprison women as breeding stock.

I don't believe that worked at all, and the very attenuated level of enthusiasm I was able to dredge up for Don't Breathe five years has pretty much iced over entirely, not least because I found that reveal to be such a dismal, uninterestingly nasty bit of witless shock. And this gets us to Don't Breathe 2 (directed by Sayagues, his debut), which wants to position that same blind old man - he has no name in the credits, just The Blind Man, but anyways he's played by Stephen Lang in what is very much the sole reason I'm able to come up with why it would be worth bothering with any of this - as its anti-hero. And look, that just doesn't work. The obvious analogue would be how something like all of the Friday the 13th sequels increasingly understand that we're there mostly just to root for Jason to butcher this next round of teenagers, but even those don't position him in the narrative as a sympathetic protagonist. I wish Álvarez & Sayagues had made different storytelling choices in 2016, but having shat their bed, the writers are now obliged to lie in it.

But even this is probably giving Don't Breathe 2 more credit than it deserves, implying that it's a film that has something going on that can be damaged by such a miscalculation. It does not. In fact, one of the most impressive things about the film is how quickly it telegraphs that we're in for a whole lot of boring failure, even before Lang has shuffled back in front of the camera. The film opens with a short prologue of a toddler (Sofija Stojanovic) wandering uncertainly away from a burning house down a suburban street, before lying down in the road, and then - "Eight Years Later". It's almost impossible to articulate how frivolous this feels in the moment of watching it, a little set-up that sets nothing up, and leaps into that title card on a moment of remarkably uncompelling anti-drama. This isn't the film failing to start its engines, this is the film unlocking the parking brake and gliding gently backwards before it even tries the ignition.

Eight years later, anyway, the little girl, now around 10 or 11 (Madelyn Grace) is running through the woods away from the old man and his dog, and it turns out he's training her in extreme survivalist techniques, having convinced her that he's her biological father. I can't tell if the filmmakers think we believe this or not, or if they care. It might have been slightly more convincing if it hadn't opened with that useless prologue, which might as well have "this is when the man kidnapped the girl" superimposed  in scrolling text the whole time. At any rate, she's getting old enough to find his chilly, even cruel approach to parenting strangulating, and he doesn't really care about her as anything other than an object to protect from the savage world that killed his actual daughter so many years ago, not that Don't Breathe 2 bothers re-supplying that bit of backstory if you've forgotten it. The film has the positions the re-forging of this relationship as a goal that we will root for, as we watch the man and girl fend off a group of home invaders led by a certain Raylan (Brendan Sexton III), who has some very particular interest in kidnapping the child.

This was never going to work on any level other than as a home invasion thriller, and mostly, I don't think it does. The one nice thing I had to say about Don't Breathe is that Álvarez knew the mechanics of genre filmmaking, in terms of where to set up the camera and how to block scenes and what cutting is good for, and all. Sayagues isn't as good at this, and it might even be correct to say that he's bad at it. But it would be more fair to say that Don't Breathe 2 leaves itself with less room for clever filmmaking, since the central gimmick of the first movie - if you are extremely quiet, maybe the murderous blind man won't know where you are - no longer applies. The few scenes that significantly activate it are, not coincidentally, the best in the film (there's a bit in the trailer where the invaders step in a pool of water and the ripples float all the way over to the man's fingertips and he bolts upright; the reason this showed up there turns out to be that it is by an amazing margin the best thing that ever happens in the movie). Otherwise, Don't Breathe 2 is full of a great many cluttered shots of the invaders cross-cut with the old man in ways that rarely make it clear how they're related, and since we do not ever once have a reason to assume that he's going to lose to them, or be more than minorly inconvenienced, there's not much tension that ever gets going.

What the film does have, though not in sufficient quantity, is good violence. Again, we're basically watching a decadent "root for the killer" slasher sequel, and that's pretty much always the only selling point of such things. In the absence of compelling tension, at least Sayagues and company stop to linger on gore effects more than I am accustomed to expect from a late-'10s/early-'20s studio-made genre film. The other thing it has to offer, and it's not unrelated, is that the longer it goes along, the more asinine its narrative reveals become. That the old man kidnapped the girl barely even qualifies as a "reveal", but the more we start to pick up about why she's being hunted by those invaders, the more the whole film starts to reveal itself as sordid gutter trash. And yes, in this context, I do mean that as a compliment, or at least that by being trash, Don't Breathe 2 could at least give itself some visceral appeal. Unfortunately, Sayagues never commits to that; he follows the lead of the first movie in presenting this all as achingly grim and straight-faced and heavy, and Lang's performance - weaker than in the first movie since he has worse material to play, but his iron-plated menace is still pretty stomach-churning to watch, in the right ways - further cements this as a movie that is not trying to be "fun" much at all. So it can't even be good grubby exploitation, which is surely the only way that a sequel making this particular villain a protagonist was ever going to work out. Anyway, it's all a very dreary experience, though I can't say that I ever expected a followup to Don't Breathe to be anything else.