Jaume Balaguero is a horror filmmaker who knows the value of cruelty. His films aren't content to just knife the viewer in the small of the back: he likes to twist the knife a couple of times for good measure. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ending of Sleep Tight (2011), which is as nihilistic an image as is possible given that it's a shot of a mother holding her son. It's a brutal movie that manages its brutality with surprisingly little violence. Physical violence, in any case. Emotional violence? Oh, mercy!
Sleep Tight follows Cesar, the concierge in an apartment complex in Barcelona (the decor suggests it's one of Gaudi's buildings, apropos of nothing in particular). Cesar is unhappy. Indeed, he's not capable of happiness unless those around him are unhappy themselves. To this end, he plays cruel tricks on his tenants. When he interacts with them, though, he's all smiles. His tricks are largely invisible, subtle pranks designed so they don't call attention to themselves. The central object of his obsession is Clara, a young woman who seems indomitably happy. Cesar views her as a challenge and goes about making her life miserable. There's an erotic component to his obsession: at night, he hides under her bed until she is asleep and then drugs her so that she'll remain asleep as he sleeps beside her. In the early morning, before she wakes, he sabotages her apartment in increasingly cruel ways: placing spoiled food in her fridge, using her toothbrush and not rinsing it, placing chemicals on her skin to give her an allergic rash. This escalates to the introduction of a roach infestation that drives her from her apartment. Cesar promises to fumigate in her absence. When she returns, she's happy again, and in company with a boyfriend. Cesar can't abide this, and it drives him to extremes...
Sleep Tight, typical of Spanish horror, is a slow burner. It's effects are so subtle that the film barely registers as a horror movie during most of its length. It is perhaps best understood as an exercise in Hitchcockian suspense, though, in truth, I think it's more Polanski than Hitchcock. That comparison seems apt to me. This is Balaguero's third "apartment" film--the other two are To Let and [•REC]--and they all seem like variants on a theme. Like Polanski, Balaguero's world is one in which your neighbors mean you ill. It's a domestic horror and it's profoundly paranoid.
The most insidious element in Sleep Tight is the way it puts the audience in Cesar's corner. There's precedence for this, of course. The audience roots for Norman Bates, too, though Norman isn't immediately identifiable as a maniac. Cesar, on the other hand, is an open book from the first frames of the film--to the audience at least. He hides it well from the other characters in the film. All of this is down to the performance by Luis Tosar, who delivers a tight, neurotic, smiling lunatic who disarms even as he does horrible, horrible things.
This is a film that I don't think I would have appreciated when I was younger. I was too blinded by privilege back in my teens and twenties and, frankly, this doesn't hit the usual notes of the horror movie. It's not particularly violent except for one sequence in the third act. It doesn't follow the beats of a horror movie and the younger me would have bristled at this. Its refusal to cater to the expectations of its genre is a strength, though. These days, I'm much more conscious of my own vulnerabilities. Part of that is down to gender--the fears of women are different than the fears of men, and this film is not likely to scare men much--but that's not all of it. I had a stalker fifteen years ago, and it's an experience that has left a scar. This film. with its obsessive predator intent on ruining the heroine's life, pokes at that scar. Hard. This film resonates with the bad craziness of being stalked: the vulnerability, the paranoia, the unhappiness. Obviously, I'm bringing a lot of personal baggage to my reaction to this film, but that can't be helped. We bring our baggage to all films, I think, regardless of genre. Some more than most.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 12
First Time Viewings: 11
Around the web:
Kevin at For It Is Man's Number takes a look at Smash Cut and falls for Sasha Grey.
Bob at The Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind has another roundup of films, including a couple of your humble bloginatrix's very favorites.
Fascination with Fear has another couple of bad trips with Breakdown and Wrong Turn.
Tim at The Other Side spits on the remake of I Spit On Your Grave.