Review by Kevin Gill
It’s a common human trait to experience occasional pleasure in other people’s misfortunes – but this Spanish thriller features a main character who takes his penchant for Schadenfreude to a disturbing, sociopathic level. In the film’s opening scene, a caretaker of a smart Barcelona apartment building explains his sorry worldview in a morose voiceover. César (Luis Tosar) is psychologically incapable of happiness – can’t achieve it, doesn’t want it – so nothing gets his back up more than having to serve and interact with shiny, happy people day after interminable day.
Building resident Clara (Marta Etura) epitomises this group of unwitting antagonists. Young, beautiful, friendly, comfortable in her own skin and full of beans on a Monday morning, Clara is everything César isn’t – and as the week goes on we realise the balding doorman is in the midst of an elaborate campaign to suck the joie de vivre out of this irritatingly lively brunette. This involves letting himself into Clara’s apartment before she gets home and positioning himself under her bed. When she falls asleep, he drugs her into a deeper slumber and sets about making her life a misery. Before long, Clara is suffering with headaches and grogginess, she’s come out in a nasty rash and her apartment is infested with cockroaches.
If this set-up suggests psychological thriller, director Jaume Balagueró’s conventional approach to the material confirms bona fide genre territory. Balagueró’s best known previous features, zombie chiller [REC] and its sequel, were also set almost entirely in an apartment building, but Sleep Tight rejects the shaky first-person claustrophobia of those films in favour of an elegant, familiar style that – like César – draws very little attention to itself. Crucially, Balagueró is extremely adept at giving the audience an opportunity to identify and sympathise with his sinister protagonist. Regular close-ups of the outwardly friendly and expressive César (a perfectly judged performance by the bushy-browed Tosar), particularly during apparently mundane encounters with Clara, contribute to this unlikely alliance. Meanwhile, César’s awkward negotiations with a young girl who’s latched onto his project and a sub-plot involving the wellbeing of an elderly resident’s pampered pooches inject notes of levity that serve to trivialise the seriousness of César’s nightly campaign.
Balagueró’s prowling camera puts the viewer in a classically voyeuristic position, whether framing Clara from César’s covert vantage point on the bedroom floor or lingering on her lithe body as she bounces around her airy, sun-drenched apartment with upbeat music belting out the stereo. This contrasts starkly with César’s humdrum domesticity – he lives in a harshly lit, featureless flat in the building’s basement where a dreary radio phone-in and a dull electrical buzz provide the uninspiring soundtrack. Indeed, it’s testament to the film’s success at provoking our sympathy with César that – although we’ve been experiencing mild heebie-jeebies for some time – the first genuine jolt of terror arrives when Clara comes close to discovering her unwanted house guest and ruining his fun.
This process of identification and the broader theme of illicit obsession invoke inevitable comparisons with Hitchcock (César also has a troubling relationship with his bed-ridden, semi-comatose mother) and there’s one violent scene that specifically recalls Torn Curtain in its unflinching depiction of a messy, protracted murder. Indeed, Balagueró has Hitch’s knack of switching tone quickly and successfully: a ploy that is marked here by the inconvenient arrival of Clara’s long-distance lover Marcos (Alberto San Juan). After this, the tension cranks up a few notches and the film really starts to show its teeth. Well-timed revelations about the true extent of César’s cruelty confirm that screenwriter Alberto Marini shares Balagueró’s appreciation of genre mechanics – and the final reel is so relentlessly nasty that it’s as if the viewer is being reprimanded for once rooting for such a despicable human being. By the time the credits roll, Sleep Tight has chilled the bones to just a few degrees short of numb.