It’s sad to say, but horror films are rarely a pleasant surprise. A few manage to confound our expectations, but in the main they’re a disappointment (and I say this as a lifelong horror fanatic). They’re clichéd, repetitive and – more often than not – dumb as a bag of hammers. Given its oh-so conventional setup, I was expecting DON’T BLINK to be one of those films. Voice artist turned first time writer/director Travis Oates does little during the first act to dispel this notion, presenting us with a series of genre clichés and hackneyed motifs. A group of young and attractive friends, some in couples and some single, head off to a secluded mountain resort (read cabin in the woods) for a hedonistic weekend vacation. They (conveniently) run out of gas, forcing them to stay despite finding the resort abandoned and encountering a number of surreal and spooky phenomena. Throw in some of the most laboured and obvious jump scares I’ve ever seen and I was ready to write off DON’T BLINK as yet another brainless genre disappointment.
Two things save Oates’ movie; the strangeness of the plot, and the way the characters respond to it. Far from the easily-identifiable genre stereotypes most horror screenwriters fall back on, Oates’ characters are more developed and mature. Their sole preoccupations aren’t pot and getting laid, and they don’t randomly strip off for our voyeuristic gratification. They’re bright and capable individuals, and they react to the odd circumstances in the way most of us would; by first questioning it, then investigating. As noted above, the jump scare are cheap (and not even remotely scary), and it’s more than a little fortuitous (or the opposite thereof) that they run out of gas as they reach their destination, but at least they engage with the problem, and attempt to come up with an intelligent solution. And that’s what sets DON’T BLINK apart – the characters deal with an illogical set of circumstances in a logical way, setting aside blind panic and genre contrivances in favour of realistic debate and attempts at a practical solution.
I’m in two minds about the nature of the threat. On one hand it’s an engaging throwback to the likes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and early Stephen King, where crazy things happen for no logical reason. Is it aliens, demons, the afterlife, a dimensional slip? Oates’ script touches on all these possibilities, albeit tangentially (after all, the characters are more interested in surviving their existential death trap than figuring out its origins). On the other hand, I can’t help thinking it’s a bit of a cop-out. Oates creates a fascinating conundrum, but offers nothing in the way of a solution. He also uses it to exaggerate certain aspects of the characters’ psyches, which makes for riveting drama, but can be viewed as a further lapse in the narrative’s already tenuous internal logic.
Unusually for this kind of film, DON’T BLINK features several well-known and accomplished actors, and boasts impressive production values. The performances are strong across the board, and Oates demonstrates a flair for dialogue, and a directorial assurance, beyond most first-timers. As noted above, the first act is lacking, and I have issues with the ‘just because’ nature of the plot (I’ve always been a sucker for thought-out resolutions), but there’s no denying it’s a compelling premise, and Oates milks it for all the tension it’s worth. By far the film’s biggest draw, however, is its characters. It’s rare (and eminently gratifying) to see a group of fictional human beings respond to a crisis in a grown-up, real world manner.