Step aside, stalkers; hang up the cutlery, slashers -- there's a new villain in town, and he's in it for the long game. His name is César, and his game is misery. That's right, César isn't content just to lop off your head or watch you while you sleep. He wants to make your life so depressing -- so terribly unbearable -- that the mere thought of existing another day is almost too excruciating to bear. So for horror fans bored to tears by masked maniacs, beady-eyed sadists, or shambling zombies, genre specialists Jaume Balagueró and Alberto Marini offer up one of the most original and insidiously evil cinema psychos to haunt our nightmares in years.
César (Luis Tosar) is a wretched man who subsists on the pain of others. Though the residents of the apartment building where he works as a concierge rarely take notice of him, César furtively observes every intimate detail of their lives, seething at the first signs of optimism and cheerfulness. Carefree tenant Clara King (Marta Etura) is far too perky for César; the happier she gets, the deeper her doorman sinks into despair. In order for him to be happy, César realizes, Clara will have to suffer. While at first his plan to torment Clara from afar goes off without a hitch, things start to fall apart when the scheming doorman gets too confident for his own good. Just as Clara begins to suspect that her curious bad-luck streak may be coming to an end, however, César summons all of his strength and resentment to deliver one last devastating blow.
Ever since his feature debut with 1999's The Nameless, an unrelenting exercise in creeping dread, Spanish filmmaker Balagueró has established a reputation as one of the most formidable talents in contemporary horror. And with only a handful of actual writing credits to his name, Sleep Tight screenwriter Marini has built an impressive track record helping to develop features for Balagueró, Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian), and Nacho Cerda (the chilling and underrated The Abandoned). As a team, Balagueró and Marini prove a force to be reckoned with -- the director's elegant visual approach inventively offset by the writer's vivid depiction of moral atrophy. All the while, Marini spices the terror with an absolutely irresistible pinch of dark humor -- as evidenced in a brilliantly caustic speech delivered by César to one of the building's elderly residents late in the film. Meanwhile, Marini also does a terrific job of keeping us off guard as we attempt to figure out just what diabolical trick César has up his sleeve next, and Balagueró brings the script's tension to the screen with masterful attention to detail (especially in a tense cat-and-mouse scene that finds an impaired César trapped in the apartment with Clara and her boyfriend). So while the screenplay steadily builds to its deeply horrifying finale, even the side plots in Sleep Tight have satisfying payoffs (especially in the case of a scheming little girl who's been onto César since the very beginning).
A prolific screen actor who's been active in film since the mid-1990s, Tosar (La comunidad, Miami Vice, Cell 211) is pitch perfect as César, a miserable soul who suffers from unhappiness like others are afflicted with blindness or cancer. Tosar gives César a personable face when he's interacting with the residents, but there's always a subtle expression of anguish if you look closely, and every word he speaks is like a tiny, parasitic dagger that burrows into the recipient's psyche. It's a fantastic, mesmerizing performance that's worth savoring -- the more deplorable César becomes, the more compelling he is to watch. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Clara, a seemingly impenetrable optimist played to perfection by Etura. We hate to see her suffer since she's a genuinely warm and trusting character who refuses to let life's little setbacks drag her down, but at the same time we can't help but marvel at César's steadfast devotion to methodically making things extremely difficult for her. The two characters represent an absolute yin and yang, and each actor finds an ideal balance in bringing that to the screen.
Yet lest fans who discovered Balagueró though the [REC] films, co-directed with Paco Plaza, come in to Sleep Tight expecting that familiar brand of frenetic shock, you may walk out sorely disappointed since this film falls much more in line with his more deliberately paced solo work. Sleep Tight is a slow burn, but before you know it you're surrounded by a three-alarm fire with no hope of escape.