Psycho killer, ¿que es eso?: Sleep Tight is a Spanish bedtime story from hell

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Sleep Tight (Mientras Duermes) tells the story of a chronically miserable psychopath whose only cure for mitigating his unhappiness is inflicting despair upon the lives of others. After watching this film, I began to wonder if its director didn’t have a similar predilection toward his audience.

Said director is Jaume Balagueró, the man behind one of the all-time best found-footage horror films (REC) and its sequel, REC2. Here, Balagueró has headier ambitions than a straight-up horror-and-gore frightfest. While billed as a horror-thriller, Sleep Tight is more an ominous narrative wound around one man’s psychopathic existentialism and moral degeneration.

Still, situational hallmarks of the REC franchise are apparent, as the near entirety of this film takes place within the confines of a live-in hotel building (with all other scenes taking place in other indoor locations). The intention here seems to be one of focusing on an interior life and sense of unforgiving claustrophobia. Or perhaps Balagueró is just cinematically agoraphobic.

Manuela Velasco in Rec

In Rec, Manuela Velasco plays a reporter working on a series called “While You’re Sleeping”—further proof that Jaume Balagueró is fixated on fucked up shit happening … while people are sleeping.

As Sleep Tight opens, we are introduced via monologue to César, a balding, fortysomething manager of a live-in hotel who seems to be teetering on the brink of suicide. “Happy. That’s exactly my problem. That I can’t be happy. I never have been. Not even when good things happen to me. You can’t imagine what it means to wake up every day with no motivation. The effort it takes me to find a reason, just one, to not let it all go to hell. And believe me, I give it my best shot. My very best. Every day of my life.”

Sounds like ol’ Cesar could just use a lounge chair, a shrink and a healthy dose of Prozac, no? But as the film unwinds, it gets clear the issue is more psycopathy rooted in sadism than a simple case of the blues.

luis tosar sleep tight

“You mad, bro?”

Cesar’s descent into the treachery that fortifies his emptiness begins somewhat innocently. He feeds a neighbor-lady’s dog food that makes it sick (psychos always gotta start with the fuckin’ pooches…). He frames a co-worker he dislikes to get him fired. And he goes to his mute, invalid mother for confessionals about his dastardly deeds, just to revel in the horror on her face.

But these are all just side items on Cesar’s main menuone which involves dismantling the psyche of Clara (Marta Etura), a beautiful, happy-go-lucky female resident at his hotel. To avoid giving anything away, let’s just say that he unleashes a series of attacks on her that channel the Plagues of Egypt. Chloroform is also involved.

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Marta Etura as Clara, who has very little chance of sleeping tight.

Sleep Tight is a tightly wound exercise in psychological horror and tension. It’s well-paced, genuinely distressing, and includes a terrific performance from Spanish actor Luis Tosar as the demented Cesar. Still, something is off here.

My main issue with the film is that, as creepily compelling as Tosar’s performance is, Cesar’s character lacks a backstory. Perhaps the main point of understanding psychopathy is that it lacks rationale. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for Balagueró and screenwriter Alberto Marini not at least attempting to delve further into the enigma that is Cesar. Apart from the fact that he’s unhappy, sadistic and gets fired often, we don’t really know much about the guy. In other words, he’s a pretty unremarkable, garden-variety psychopath.

luis tosar cesar most interesting man

“I don’t normally torment tenants, but when I do… eh, it’s actually pretty run-of-the-mill.”

There’s also a stylistic issue that seems a bit tone-deaf here. The heinousness of Cesar is celebrated by a soundtrack that turns to upbeat gleefulness when he’s at his worst. It’s unclear if Balagueró is trying to vilify his audience for their voyeurism a la Funny Games, or if it’s simply dark humor poorly misplaced.

I should also note that unless you’re fluent in Spanish, the dialogue can be a bit hard to follow at times, as subtitle work here lags several seconds behind (at least on Amazon at the time of this post). Not a fault of the film, obviouslyjust a heads-up for the viewer.

Complaints aside, Sleep Tight definitely does the trick if you’re in for a bleak, suspense psychopath flick. And its twist-ending is demonically pitch perfect. The main letdown is that much like its main character, Sleep Tight is just a few creative strokes away from completion.

IMDb: 7.2
GRADE: B / B+

-Sam Adams

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Blue Detective: “Trapped” avalanches Iceland to the forefront of Nordic Noir

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The mining is in high-gear in the Nordic Noir landscape. Where Fortitude broke the ice and tunneled into its festering recesses, creator Baltasar Kormákur’s Trapped thrives on creating its own living hell within the crevasse of an isolated Northern Icelandic port village. It’s in this frigid microcosm that a brilliantly acted, tense and bleak murder-mystery unfoldsfinally giving the quiet island-country a voice amongst one of the most alluring bleak film movements on the planet.

To be fair, the sublime, rolling glacial terrain of Iceland has long graced our screens. But, as location spots, its beauty lent itself more as a geographical ghostwriter to foreign and fictional lands. Consider the visually arresting opening sequence of Prometheus, or John Snow being informed of his limited mental acumen by his beloved, robin-haired Wildling. These scenes took place in Iceland, but the eventsas we know them cinematicallyreally unfolded in Planet LV-223, and “North of the Wall.” Heck, even the aforementioned Fortitude was filmed mainly in Iceland, even though the show is supposed to take place in Norway.

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Fortitude‘s phenomenal first season included one of the best finales ever seen in a detective show. Its second season was serviceable.

Point being, Trapped is one of the first pieces of crime cinema to reach global audiences with a certified Icelandic export stamp on it. But more on that laterlet’s get to the plot.

Trapped begins with fire and iceits opening scene depicting a flashback of a young girl burned alive, followed shortly thereafter by a headless, limbless corpse being pulled out of the freezing ocean by stunned fishermen.

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Lend me a hand…

As soon as local police start investigating the cadaver, a massive storm hits and the tiny port town is snowed in. This prevents the swinging-dick, bigwig police from Reykjavík to offer their assistance. It also becomes clear that the foul play is linked to a massive ferry that’s just docked. The ship’s shady captain, a corrupt mayor, a fishy hotelier and a slimy underling politico are just a few in the Clue-like assemblage of suspects that three small town cops must sift through to put the pieces together.

The most complex performance comes from the American-born veteran actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (recognizable from from his role as the grimy, prophetic meth dealer who delivered one of the baddest pieces of dialogue in one of True Detective Se1’s best scenes). His detective Andri plays the lead as a man with the look and softness of an oversized teddy bear, but also the fierce, hunting instincts of a polar bear.

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“You got a demon, little man. And I don’t like your face. It makes me wanna do things to it.”

Other compelling performances come from Andri’s estranged wife Agnes (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), visiting from out-of-town with a new boytoy in tow. As the storm shutters everyone in, Andri’s condition becomes even more pitiable as he endures his wife sharing a bedroom with boytoy down the hall from the couch he crashes on.

As the father of the incinerated girl, Pálmi Gestsson also turns in a complex performance as a man whose very existence is a rumination on grief and vengeance. In a show that doesn’t leave loose ends, his story comes full circle through a wicked stroke of poetic justice that ends in Gestsson delivering one of Trapped’s most profound and poignant scenes.

One last performance worth mentioning is that of Baltasar Breki Samper as Hjörturthe mysterious, scar-faced boyfriend of the dead girl. As he broodingly mopes and dopes around the little village in an oversized hoodie, Hjörtur becomes both in character traits and appearance the tortured embodiment of an Icelandic Jesse Pinkman.

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      “Life’s a bitch…”                                 “Yeah, bitch.”

Now back to the interplay between Trapped and its country of origin. Despite that Trapped is Iceland’s highest-budgeted series on record, it doesn’t go to lengths to boast about, or showcase, a sense of geographical or national identity. The bulk of the series is filmed in the small, Northern port city of Siglufjörðura place removed from the tourism bustle that has hit the nation by storm in recent years. And while a small amount of the show’s activity takes place in Reykjavík, Trapped isn’t concerned with providing a cinematographic tour of its capitol. A brief cityscape shot is providedseemingly for no other purpose than narrative clarity.

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Iceland’s stunning Blue Lagoon—a tourist draw Trapped could give two shits about.

This non-geo-centric approach is a departure from great crime shows like Breaking Bad, of which Vince Gilligan described its Albuqerque location as a “central character.” It’s also fitting, in multiple ways. It would seem counterintuitive to provide lingering, aerials of Iceland’s magnificently sublime glaciers and sprawling wilderness expanse in a show centered around a concept of claustrophobia. As a straightforward, bleak and rugged crime drama, Trapped is also under no obligation to kowtow to atmospheric localism to deliver the visceral gut punch it provides. And frankly, it doesn’t need it. This minimalist approach simply doesn’t hold the aesthetic appeal of similar dark, detective shows like Fortitude or The Killing.

That’s not to say that the cinematography is inept or ineffective in capturing a distinct feeling of placequite the opposite. It just so happens thatoutside of the show’s Icelandic dialogue and localeit could most likely have the same effect were it filmed in Alaska, the Antarctic, etc. Trapped is undoubtedly an Icelandic show. It’s just not unabashedly one.Ólafur Darri Ólafsson the shiningAs for narrative drawbacks, Trapped’s only one is that with such a large cast of characters and such a sprawling murder mystery, it can be difficult to remember who some of the side characters are when they’re mentioned in conjunction with investigations. The show could be difficult to follow if one didn’t simply binge itnot that each character doesn’t have a meaningful role to play, or that plotlines are overly complex. Someone involved in the production may have caught on to this, as each episode is prefaced by an appreciatvely throrough recap of events (necessary even when bingeing).

All said, Trapped is Nordic Noir at its bestthanks in large part to Ólafsfon’s standout performance, a well-crafted and resolved narrative, and an introspective ability to work within the emotional expanse of its geographically limited confines.

GRADE: A / A-
IMDb: 8.2

-Sam Adams

A Georgian Film: Landmine Goes Click (on Amazon Prime)

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With a premise that might as well be an interwoven riff on Funny Games, Deliverance and I Spit on Your Grave, director Levan Bakhia’s Landmine Goes Click is probably the most disturbing thing I’ve watched since the notorious A Serbian Film. The story starts innocently enough, with a guy leaving his fiance and best friend standing on a live landmine in the middle of the European Georgian wilderness. That’s the innocent partleaving your friend and future wife to get blown to smithereens over an infidelity.

What devolves next is not for the faint of heart. Actually, I’m not sure who it’s for, or if I should even be recommending it on this blog. Which is why I bring up Funny Games, a movie I loathed watching but one that does pose the important question of why our society gets off on cinematic sadism. Or as Jamie Dornan put it in one of The Fall’s more memorable lines (before the series took a horse tranquilizer in Season 3), “Why the fuck are you watching this? You sick shit. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

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Why yes, Jamie Dornan did in fact get the role of a charming sexual sadist in Fifty Shades of Grey by playing a psycho-sexual sadist serial killer in The Fall. Gotta love Hollywood…

Indeed, that question begs answering in Landmine. One could argue that once this backwoods horror-show of rape, murder and torturous brutality comes to a close, there is a smidgen of moral resolution. But that might be a stretch.

All disclaimers aside, Landmine Goes Click is an expertly paced horror thriller that’s as evocative in its “revenge porn” as some of the most twisted major cinema to come out of the ’70s (I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes). And it’s hard not to admire the all-out psychologically warped performances of Sterling Knight and Kote Tolordava as a Yank and Georgian in a cat-and-mouse game of mortal combat.

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Georgian actor Kote Tolordava (left) died shortly before the release of Landmine Goes Click in 2015.

As in Funny Games, some of Bakhia’s scenes do linger to a point of near-unwatchable unease. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. But if you can handle A Serbian Film, you won’t have any problems getting through this. You didn’t come to this website to read about Twilight, right?

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.2

-Sam Adams

Westbound and Doomed: The Uncharted Terrain of Bone Tomahawk

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Billed as a horror-Western, Bone Tomahawk is a film without direct cinematic precedent. For starters, it’s really more of a Western with a short horror film packaged seamlessly into one brief and glorious stretch of its narrative. It’s also the first very good film in the history of film to marry the two genres (with respect to the great Dusk Till Dawn, which isn’t really a Western). I am, of course, operating on the premise that such titles as Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula, The Quick and Undead and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter aren’t exactly “triumphs.”

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Not quite a classic…

Sure, you could argue that it draws from a patchwork of disparate sources: an amalgam of The Searchers and The Hills Have Eyes, or perhaps the warped offspring of The Descent and Apocalypto.

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“This is how it feels to have one of the greatest films of its decade critically panned because its director is a racist piece of shit.”

The closest singular film I can link it to would be the black comedy Ravenous (1999). Both, after all, are cannibal-themed period pieces that traffic in undertones of supernatural terror while maintaining a sense of morbid humor.

Bone Tomahawk, however, is simply a different kind of animal. Its humor is more subtle; its horror worlds more horrific; its Western more… Western. The closest singular source I can link it to is Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, but while that would encompass Bone Tomahwak’s grotesque and philosophical Western leanings, it doesn’t fully capture the more traditional horror avenue into which it (quite literally) devolves.

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Coolest movie poster of 2015?

In short, this movie does something profound for viewers like myself (and other adherents of the idea that bleak cinema is like ASMR) by combining two of the best grim genres ever created into a tidy little package of bloody carnage and retaining the bleakest soulful expression that each has to offer. Furthermore, there has never been a more perfect movie to recommend on a blog that doesn’t focus specifically on horror, crime, Western or thriller, but instead connects these genres through an undercurrent of thrilling morbidity and bleakness.

But enough gushy babbling. Here’s your goddam synopsis:

Like Ravenous, Bone Tomahawk is propelled in part by a fantastic cast of recognizable b-listers. Ravenous gave us the great performances of Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle and Jeffrey Jones. In Tomahawk we have Kurt Russell harkening back to his Snake Plissken and R.J. MacReady days as a mean-as-nails, no-nonsense sonuvabitch frontier sherriff.

Speaking of The Thing, first-time director S. Craig Zahler draws from a dark pool of horror and crime cinema vets to bring his script to life. Richard Jenkins (The Cabin in the Woods) steals the show as a simple-minded, chatty backup deputy who serves as Russell’s loyal bloodhound.

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“You know, I know the world’s supposed to be round, but I’m not so sure about this part.”

James Wan alum Patrick Wilson (who I’m starting to realize can actually act, even if he ain’t much with a Western accent) plays the lead of a crippled land surveyor spearheading a rescue party. We also get Sid Haig (Rob Zombie vet), David Arquette (Scream, Ravenous), Zahn McClarnon (Season Two of Fargo, Resolutionand Lili Simmons (True Detective, Banshee), with the latter looking way too hot for frontier life. Oh, and then there’s Matthew fucking Fox as a bloodthirsty playboy Indian hunter in what might just be his best-ever role (meaning it’s completely tolerable).

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“Matthew Fox from Lost? You know what’s interesting about him? … Nothing.”

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Monster at the End of the Dream highly endorses this book.

I don’t really feel like giving much away about this film, as I think you should just experience it knowing that you’re going to get something Western, weird and horrific. But for a bit of background, it borrows the theme of a doomed four-man search-and-rescue party a la John Ford’s Searchers who are out to retrieve a damsel in distress from a group of “troglodyte” cave-dwelling Indians. (A story which was originally inspired by the capture of Cynthia Ann Parker, as chronicled in S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moona must-read for Cormac McCarthy fans, by the way.)

Packed with brilliant dialogue (especially in the hands of Richard Jenkins), claustrophobically sublime Old West cinematography and one of the best climaxes I’ve seen in any genre in years, Bone Tomahawk would surely make my list of the best horror films of the past decade. But then there’s the predicament of howlike a another one of my favorite 2015 would-be horror films, Springit isn’t a full-fledged horror film. It’s an anomaly. A brilliant, grotesque, slow-burn anomaly that you simply have to behold to comprehend.


GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.1

-Sam Adams

NOTE: Bone Tomahawk is currently free for Amazon Prime subscribers.