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.
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.
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 menu—one 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.
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.
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, obviously—just 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.
GRADE: B / B+