NR | 72 min | Justin Doescher | (USA) | 2016
I watch a lot of horror films, including as many independent productions as I can. I forget many of them shortly after finishing them. I never make it through many others. But sometimes I find one that really surprises me—and those are the ones I tend to write about.
The Break-In, written and directed by Justin Doescher (who also stars), was such a surprising film: it pulled me in, made me want to keep watching—and then came at me with an ending I did not see coming and that I’ve been thinking about ever since. The Break-In is definitely low-budget, but if you’re mulling over whether or not to watch this film or spend the big bucks for the latest high-profile theatrical release, The Darkness, stay home and rent The Break-In.
As a testament to how interesting I think this film is, there are two parts to this review. Read the first part before you watch the film, and hopefully it’ll make you want to watch. The second half, below the big “Spoiler Alert,” are my thoughts on the film in light of its ending. You should come back and read that part after you’ve watched the film.
Here’s the trailer:
The Break-In is, as I said, a seriously low-budget found-footage film. It centers on engaged couple Jeff (Justin Doescher) and Melissa (Maggie Binkley), who are expecting a baby. Jeff just got a new phone and is filming much of what the couple does. (Yes, I know, some people can’t get over why characters would keep filming in dire situations, but it’s a staple of found-footage horror so you do just have to get over it. Just as you have to get over how there is always, inexplicably, no cell service wherever a horror film happens to be going down. Live with it!) Jeff has also recently had security cameras and a security system put in, since there have been a string of break-ins in his neighborhood. The only other characters in this small cast are Jeff and Melissa’s next-door-neighbors and long-time friends, Steve (J. P. Veizaga) and Lisa (Melissa Merry), as well as Detective Garcia (Ted Fernandez), who appears a few times to talk to Jeff and Melissa about the break-ins.
I’ll say right up front that one of the things that kept me enthralled by this film was the absolute, unrelenting normalcy of the four main characters, especially Jeff and Melissa. At seventy-two minutes, this film is relatively short, but there is a lot of footage of utterly mundane occurrences—small talk, conversations about shopping, reminiscences about college days, scenes of Jeff and Melissa taking out the trash, eating at faceless mall restaurants, getting ready to go to bed, planning their day, saying they love each other. It was so mundane that while it should, perhaps, have been boring, I actually found myself transfixed. This is unadulterated real life (someone’s real life, anyway—the kind of life you yourself are never actually living but you imagine other people are). The house Jeff and Melissa live in is utterly sterile—white and forgettable, and the exterior shots, which are filmed in Baltimore, could have been anywhere in any city.
The best succinct definition of horror I’ve ever found is Robin Wood’s famous articulation of the “formula” of horror: “Normality is threatened by the Monster.”[i] I’ve honestly never seen a film that so ruthlessly immerses you in normality as does The Break-In. It’s so banal it almost moves into avant-garde terrain.
Precisely because the narrative and mise-en-scène of this film are so unremittingly normal, the small hints of horror that start to creep in are all the more effective—and I love how restrained Doescher is with his shots of what “break in” on this normality: a man standing on the stoop, feet glimpsed as a garage door chugs up, a figure momentarily caught on a balcony. Even the intrusion of Detective Garcia seems somehow sinister: he seems so out of place in this whitewashed, banal world.
Toward the end, more serious things start happening—and, as I said, I did not see the ending coming, although maybe I should have. I’ll be interested in hearing from anyone who wasn’t surprised by the twist at the end.
The acting by all four main characters in The Break-In is great—to the extent that it doesn’t come across as acting at all (which is the point) and, as I said, Doescher is spot-on in creating utterly mundane dialogue and is perfectly controlled in offering only tantalizing glimpses of the encroaching threat. Especially toward the end of the film, the movement back and forth between footage from Jeff’s phone and the security cameras was perfectly done.
Watch it! And then check back for part 2 of this review!
You can watch The Break-In on Amazon, here: http://amzn.com/B01FRGNW9W
Only read below here if you’ve watched the film!
So what the ending of The Break-In reveals is that the real threat is the relentlessly normal Jeff himself, who ends up stabbing his wife and unborn baby while sleepwalking. The film shows, indeed, that the real threat could be any one of us. Given the right (or the wrong) circumstances, our own body could become unloosed from reason and will and could do the very last thing we want to do. The title, The Break-In, thus takes on a completely different (and more interesting) meaning than at first appears. This is a home invasion film of a very different kind. And the real horror of the film comes when Jeff watches himself, on security camera footage, doing something of which he was completely unconscious.
I have to quote perhaps my favorite lines from Emily Dickinson here:
Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most,
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’s least.
We ourselves are perhaps the most frightening intruder on our own lives.
Although I was completely surprised by the ending, Doescher does (in hindsight) predict it, which I definitely admired after I finished the film. The seemingly throw-away (though rather funny) conversation about Jeff’s sleep apnea and Steve’s use of his mask to smoke pot when they were college roommates takes on much more meaning after you’ve watched the ending. Jeff has sleep issues, we remember. Also, in retrospect, the constant misdirection about the dangers of the pregnant Melissa feeling stress come back to haunt: in the end, it’s not Melissa’s state of mind we actually need to worry about.
There is also another moment of conversation that takes on much more weight once we’ve seen the ending. Detective Garcia tells Jeff that his habit of filming everything is actually useful, because often what’s in the “background” of a shot –what’s filmed inadvertently – can help solve a crime. And Doescher gives us several “background” shots of sinister-seeming people lurking around Jeff and Maggie’s house. But in the end, the real threat turns out to be what is relentlessly in the foreground—Jeff himself, offering another instance of clever misdirection by Doescher.
But then we have to take another turn and ask whether it is actually what’s in the foreground that’s the threat. Because what we see in the “foreground” is Jeff’s rational self. But what is caught on camera at the end—stabbing the pregnant Melissa—is the mechanical, unconscious self that always lurks in the background, behind that rational self. So Garcia is right: it’s what’s caught in the “background” that can be the key to solving a crime.
The Break-In also raises the question: to what degree is this unconscious self a part of Jeff? Did he have some buried wish to lash out against Melissa as the embodiment of the stifling and mundane world in which he was, from one perspective at least, trapped?
In many ways, The Break-In contains echoes of Paranormal Activity—not least in their shared technique of alternating between hand-held cameras and stationary web cams and security cameras. It also echoes the Paranormal franchise in that there is an invasion of home and body—a possessing force. But in The Break-In, perhaps most frighteningly, the possessing force isn’t a demon but one’s own unconscious, sleeping self.
Relatively early in the first Paranormal Activity, Katie (Katie Featherstone) sleepwalks and both she and Micah (Micah Sloat) watch her on the tape afterwards. Katie is horrified that what she is seeing is both her and yet at the same time someone completely alien to her, not under her control. This moment of horror gets translated, in that film, into demonic possession. But in The Break-In, that horror remains centered on the mundane self. And that is much more terrifying.
[i] Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 78.