A Disturbing Credence

Spanish director Jaume Balagueró’s and his frequent collaborator Paco Plaza are best known for the [Rec] franchise, the first two entries of which remain exemplary found-footage horror. Balagueró’s latest film, Sleep Tight, is a departure that still stays well within the realms of horror. This time, alone on the director’s chair, he exchanges the adrenaline-shot immersion of the first two [Rec] films’ first-person POVs for the more chilling unease of a slow-burn thriller centred around the monster instead of the victims. The monster in question is César (Luis Tosar), a voyeuristic concierge at an apartment building, who uses his access to the tenants’ private lives to make them unhappy in subtle ways like neglecting to water their plants or making their dogs sick. Like the zombies in [Rec], César is a parasite. He leaches the happiness from others to keep his own chronic existential despair at bay. Where this pathology becomes criminal is in his fixation on one of the residents, Clara (Marta Etura), who is so young, beautiful and unshakable in her oblivious optimism that he becomes infatuated both with her and the process of breaking her down.

The [Rec] movies were populated with cretinous and grating characters that limited one’s investment in their fates, but the urgency of a fast, ferocious supernatural critter clawing its way towards the throat of a character whose eyes you’re seeing through does remarkable things for identification. Unfortunately, the tendency towards contrived, unrealistic behaviour on the part of under-developed characters carries on to Sleep Tight, resulting in a film where you root for neither villain nor victims until Balagueró’s effective use of cinematic suspense forces us to do so, in various well-devised Hitchcockian set-pieces. As tribute to that master filmmaker, these scenes work quite well. They’re efficient, quietly placing the audience in César’s shoes as he flirts with being discovered in the midst of his transgressions, and therefore triggering our identification with a terrible man whom we should want caught, but don’t at that moment. It’s the filmmaker playing with our need for delayed gratification, for the doling out of thrills in measured doses till a cathartic climax, instead of a premature overdose (say, César getting caught half an hour in and halting the narrative).

Presumably, by making César the protagonist, the film wants to be an exercise in drawing a thematic line between the audience and a voyeuristic criminal. When the camera lingers lovingly on Clara’s half-naked body sprawled across her bed and bathed in moonlight, the frame is laden with the implicit accusation that the audience wants César to undress her and carry this violation of her privacy through to its extreme as much as he does. The problem is that in doing so, it says nothing that hasn’t been said in more interesting ways by Hitchcock’s films decades ago.

The film’s execution is effective but shallow, since our identification with César is a neurochemical response induced by specific narrative and audiovisual cues (such as skewed angles and a tight, shallow focus on César as he tries to escape an inhabited apartment after chloroforming himself by accident—in itself a cleverly hilarious predicament). The tension doesn’t arise organically from characters the audience can care about or finds fascinating, though Luis Tosar gives a fine, understated performance as César. His portrayal of the concierge as a dour, meticulous man slavishly devoted to a certain routine, instead of an exaggerated caricature of a drooling maniac, gives his outlandish malevolence disturbing credence. He goes about the tasks of planting cockroach eggs or preparing a knock-out kit under his tenant’s bed with the same methodical efficiency one would expect of, aptly, a concierge checking off his caretaking duties. By so inhabiting César, Tosar fleshes out the simply drawn sociopath presented by the screenplay, which not only conveniently explains the exact nature of his villainy in voice-over at the very beginning of the film, but also adds on a barely-thought-out thread involving his dying mother possibly not having loved him enough.

Tosar’s presence keeps the film more than just watchable. But when the narrative can’t muster any sympathy for the people it so gleefully torments through its central character, it’s hard to care about his quest to keep the tenants unhappy, especially when the film plays this for trivial, mordant laughs during its first half. César’s obsession, Clara, is nothing but a cypher, an objectified pawn on which the story develops an arc for the former character. Her vapid boyfriend Marco (Alberto San Juan) is even more transparent as a mindless slave of the plot. And while the objectifying gaze that comes into play every time Clara’s on-screen is meant to represent César’s sexualized predation and link it to the audience as willing spectators of such, it’s perfunctory, lacking in thematic depth or cinematic invention. Clara’s lack of personality or agency in the unpleasant fate given to her for being exuberant, beautiful, and a woman, becomes discomfiting in the wrong ways. The rest of the tenants are almost nonexistent, barring teenage hellion Úrsula (Iris Almeida), who serves as a distractingly implausible nemesis for César by being the sole tenant who is somewhat aware of his nefarious activities and milks the situation for bribes.

As the film slithers into more twisted and interesting territory, it also trails behind an increasing number of ridiculous implausibilities that drag it down, keeping its final-act revelations and violence from delivering the impact they could have. The cardboard-thin characters and extreme contrivances of the screenplay keep the element of artifice so clear that none of it can be taken too seriously. Ultimately, the most interesting thing about Sleep Tight proved to be the reaction of some of my fellow audience-members. During a later scene (spoiler warning), we see a teenager being threatened with bodily harm and possibly being severely psychologically scarred for life by César, a predatory, unstable adult. And yet, because of the prior portrayal of this teenager as a cartoonish brat and a fly in our protagonist’s ointment, this deliverance coaxed a smattering of laughter from some of the audience. Simply put, this (perhaps nervous?) response illustrated that Balagueró’s methods might just be more effective than I’m giving him credit for. I myself wasn’t amused by the scene, but I was disturbed that others were—and what better reaction for a psychological horror film to evoke? What better way to drive home the emotionally manipulative power of storytelling and art, and the malleability of the human mind? It just feels a little ironic that I found it more convincing when Balagueró and Plaza were tweaking our emotions by throwing zombies and gore at the screen. On that note, go watch [Rec] if you haven’t.