There’s a solid reason there are so many horror movies and thrillers with blind protagonists — it’s an easy way to create big tension. Film is a visual medium, and making the dangers visible to the audience is a must. Making them invisible to the lead character at the same time is usually a complicated process of planning, exposition, or staging. But taking a protagonist’s sight out of the equation creates an immediate imbalance between the person onscreen and the viewers, who can see at every moment exactly what perils their hero might be missing.
Movies like Dancer in the Dark, Julia’s Eyes, The Eye, Blink, and In Darkness all use blindness to make already-vulnerable female leads even more vulnerable — not just to stalkers, predators, and supernatural threats, but to self-doubt, marginalization, and dismissal from the people who should be protecting them. More than any of these, though, the new thriller See For Me plays like a modern update of the 1967 classic Wait Until Dark, with Audrey Hepburn trying to outwit manipulative criminal Alan Arkin after he invades her home. See For Me updates the home-invasion formula with a couple of clever twists and a key relationship. But writers Adam Yorke and Tommy Gushue and director Randall Okita only push the formula so far before they run out of innovation.
Skyler Davenport stars as Sophie, a former teen skiing champion living with an overprotective, overbearing mother after being blinded. Sophie has a lucrative sideline in cat-sitting for extremely rich people, which gets her out of the house and gives her some independence, but also means frequently dealing with new environs where she doesn’t know the layout. Complicating the situation: She’s ferociously independent, to the point of resisting even the most basic tour of the latest sprawling glass-and-steel mansion she’s caretaking.
That leaves her at a disadvantage when she accidentally locks herself out of the house — it’s in a remote wooded area, a long drive away from help. So she tries a new assistive app, See For Me, that networks her with a helper who taps into her phone camera and talks her through what’s around her. She and the helper, good-humored military vet and video gamer Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy), form a tentative bond, which immediately comes in handy when burglars break into the house to access a large safe. Suddenly, Sophie is playing cat and mouse with three criminals she can’t see in an unfamiliar environment.
There’s an enjoyable meta aspect to all of this, both for gamers and horror-movie buffs. Kelly is a clear media aficionado who’s remotely tuning into Sophie’s life from a cushy gaming station, complete with multiple monitors and an Alienware headset. In one sense, she’s like a gamer playing a horror title, trying to navigate her charge past lunging adversaries and shifting environmental threats. Seen another way, Kelly is essentially a horror-movie fan with full freedom to yell “Don’t go that way, he’s waiting for you!” or “Pick up that gun and shoot him!” at the screen without bothering anyone else.
Unlike most horror-movie victims, Sophie can actually hear and respond to her audience’s frantic instructions. That’s where See For Me deviates furthest from the Wait Until Dark formula of a blind woman trying to out sneak and outthink a dangerous man — Sophie at least has a lifeline and an ally. But unlike a character in a horror game, Sophie periodically ignores Kelly’s instructions, for a variety of clearly defined personal reasons that she mostly keeps secret from her helper.
A good part of the movie’s tension is in the fluctuating link between the two women — whether Kelly can respond to her limited interpretation of Sophie’s environment enough to give her useful guidance, how Sophie’s own significant agenda plays into the story, and how their personalities cohere or clash. Easily the best part of the film is the push-and-pull between them, as Sophie’s bitterness about feeling dependent makes her push back against Kelly, and Kelly’s military experience has her demanding more violence out of Sophie than Sophie is comfortable with.
If See For Me was as taut and clever about the war between Sophie and the thieves, it’d be an exceptional thriller. It’s unfortunate that Gushue and Yorke tend to dispose of potentially fascinating characters before they’ve had a chance to develop, and that they eventually ditch the movie’s unique aspects in favor of another been-there-done-that stalking situation in the house. Okita gets a major advantage from the setting, with his camera frequently observing Sophie through the house’s many glass walls, turning her into a flailing animal navigating an oppressive aquarium.
Other aspects of the direction hamper the film significantly, though; slack editing makes the final act plod, the score is weirdly generic and detached, and the repetition of Sophie stumbling around in the dark eventually accumulates in a frustrating way. It’s possible to make that dynamic riveting — look at Don’t Breathe, which flips the switch by turning the blind victim of a home invasion into the terrifying villain of the story — but See For Me doesn’t do enough to distinguish one confrontation from the next once the real dangers kick in.
The film does have solid assets in Davenport and Kennedy. Sophie is just bristly and self-pitying enough to feel more like a real person than a stock ingenue. Davenport embraces the chip on the character’s shoulder and makes it seem like a natural, understandable outgrowth of her situation, even as the film shows how alienating and worrisome her mild belligerence can be to other people. Kennedy has an appealing warmth with enough steel under it to make her backstory make sense, though the script doesn’t do her many favors by abandoning her development right after she starts revealing her past.
But the two women and their unusual partnership are enough to make See For Me an agreeable evening’s diversion, good for a few shocks and surprises. It won’t join the pantheon of great horror movies, or make people forget the Wait Until Dark ending that’s been making audiences scream since 1967. But the filmmakers know the clear advantages that come with this particular horror subgenre, and they’re at least devoted to both exploiting its potential for shudders, and finding ways to refresh it for a new era.
See For Me opens in theaters on Jan, 7 and is available for rental or purchase on Apple, Vudu, and other digital platforms.