In 2007, the directing duo of Juame Balagueró and Paco Plaza made a big splash into the horror scene when they released Rec, the first movie to combine the zombie genre with the found footage genre. They went on to further line their pockets when they released a successful sequel in 2009. But then the co-directors went their separate ways. Paco Plaza proceeded to pull down his trousers and squirt out the hot, slimy piece shit that was [Rec] 3: Genesis, and Juame Balagueró turned his talents toward producing Sleep Tight, a discomforting, creepy little horror gem. The understated brilliance of this movie settles the question of which side of the Rec collaboration contained all of the creative talent.
Sleep Tight opens with César (Luis Tosar), the concierge of a high end apartment complex, standing at the edge of building’s rooftop. Through grim narration, he describes himself as being utterly incapable of experiencing happiness. He candidly states that the only thing in life that gives him anything approximating pleasure is the act of spreading misery to others. He steps back from the ledge, and in the next shot we see him lying in bed with an attractive woman (Marta Etura), her arm thrown across him. A nearby alarm clock hits 5:00 am and César furtively crawls out of bed.
The point of view cuts to a shot of the bedroom nightstand; on it we see a picture of the woman with another man. But that’s not so odd, right? Devoid of any context, the natural inference is that the two are having an affair. César trudges downstairs to begin his work day and the girl (whose name we later learn is Clara) wakes up alone and prepares for her own day. César and Clara pass each other in the building lobby, and while Clara’s reaction upon seeing the concierge is cheerful and polite, the encounter is utterly devoid of any sexual undertones. There’s no indication that there’s anything going on between the two.
But that’s just the nature of an affair, right? They’re passing each other in public, and because people are watching, they’re pretending not to know each other. That makes sense. However, as the film progresses, things become skin-crawingly clear that Clara and César aren’t in any kind of relationship. César is just a creepy fucker who slips into Clara’s room every night and climbs in bed next to her while she’s asleep. “Sleep tight,” indeed.
We soon become clued into César’s daily regimen. As the concierge, César has keys to every room in the building. He spends his day fielding complaints from residents, working odd jobs around the place, and manning the front desk. Throughout the day, he finds the time to stuff anonymous, threatening letters in Clara’s mailbox, flood her phone with nasty text messages, and blow up her email inbox with sexually explicit emails. At night he enters the girl’s apartment, hides under her bed until she’s asleep, crawls out, chloroforms her, and climbs in bed next to her. Before he leaves each morning, he takes the time to inflict a variety of petty cruelties upon the girl from tampering with her alarm clock to stealing precious possessions to poisoning her beauty products.
César doesn’t appear to get off on this activity in any sexual sense, so why does he torture the girl? The simple and horrifying answer is that the woman is perky, cheerful, and she treats César with kindness. Clara, being the brightest and happiest resident of the building, is the inevitable recipient of the brunt of César’s fury. And despite the cruelties he anonymous inflicts on the girl, in scene after scene she passes through the lobby each morning with a carefully preserved smile on her face, which only serves to further infuriate César, forcing him to ramp up his nighttime activities.
Sleep Tight isn’t the typical portrait of evil we see in modern horror movies. There’s nothing outwardly shocking about the concierge. He isn’t deformed, he doesn’t wear a Halloween mask, and he doesn’t carry around a butcher’s knife or an ax. If anything, César looks a lot like a balding Daniel Day Lewis. Outwardly, he manages an air of cheerful servitude, and he blends into his surroundings seamlessly. It’s when he’s alone that the mask drops and we see him for the dead eyed monster he is. It almost goes without saying that Luis Tolsar’s depiction of psychopathy here is brilliant, on par with performances such as Michael Rooker’s in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Michael C. Hall on Dexter.
Unlike with most horror movies we perceive everything in Sleep Tight from the villain’s point of view. Balagueró finds ways to film seemingly innocuous scenes from predatory, voyeuristic angles. As a result every room and object takes on new meaning. There’s nothing particularly foreboding about the apartment complex; unease is generated entirely from the director’s manipulation of the camera.
If Sleep Tight suffers from any flaw, it’s that perhaps the film identifies too closely with its main character. The content is a little too pitch-black, the subject of the movie too ugly and unrepentant. The director here fully succeeds in inspiring the emotions that he intends to inspire, but maybe that isn’t always a good thing.
Still, Sleep Tight is more unsettling and effective than any of the nastier, bloodier, dime-a-dozen Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes/sequels. Juame Balagueró accomplishes a lot with very little, and despite the boundaries he’s pushing here, his film is very reminiscent of the great French and Hollywood suspense films of the 1950’s and ‘60s. Sleep Tight deals with the kind of subject matter Alfred Hitchcock absolutely loved, and it’s likely the type of movie he would have made had the old Hollywood production code not prohibited it during his heyday. Unfortunately, it’s also the type of movie that leaves you wanting to scrub your brain afterwards.