Sleep Tight (Spain, 2011)
When does a thriller become a horror film? This question kept intruding into my mind as I watched Sleep Tight. In the first act, Sleep Tight stays firmly within thriller territory, which is not to say that it isn’t dark. As events escalate and the true depravity of the protagonist’s actions become apparent, however, all doubt that Sleep Tight is a horror film dissipates.
In my opinion, the difference between a thriller and a non-supernatural horror movie is one of intent. A thriller offers you a build-up of tension, sometimes through portraying horrible things, and entangles your emotions in its story before offering you a safe release. Horror is not so gentle. It doesn’t care who gets hurt, whether it repels or sickens its audience, and it offers no guarantee of well-being afterwards. In fact, the best horror haunts us in a way that thrillers cannot, slipping into our minds long after like an intruder in the night.
Intrusion is what Sleep Tight is all about. César, a concierge at an up-market block of flats in Spain, is unable to feel happiness. He flirts with suicide on a daily basis and envies the light that he sees in others, especially in the vivacious, trusting and happy young tenant, Clara. Unable to share her happiness, César sets out to destroy it by insinuating himself into her life and violating her health, relationships and sanity. His role is almost one of a vampire, but one who feeds on the joy of life instead of anything so mundane as blood. César’s cruelty and manipulation extend to other victims as well, and he leaves a long trail of broken lives throughout the film.
César is played by Luis Tosar, who turns this monstrous man into a tragic and, sometimes, sympathetic one. Tosar convinces us of César’s loneliness and alienation even as he carries out acts of sadism, and his ability to switch between superficially charming, sad and sinister with slight shifts of facial expression makes for compelling viewing.
Sleep Tight was directed by Jaume Balagueró, whose name will be familiar to fans of Spanish horror films. He is best known as the writer and director of the first two [Rec] films as well as fine horrors such as Darkness and The Nameless. While Balagueró did not write Sleep Tight, the script is as chilling as any of his own work, and filled with nuance and shifts in tone. While Sleep Tight is rarely less than dark, it has a sardonic touch that makes some scenes blackly humorous. As the story moves on to its soul-crushing climax, though, any humour disappears and we are left with the horrific outcome of César’s actions and the understanding of just how far he has taken his plan.
Some people will find Sleep Tight uncomfortable viewing. It may lack the gore and visceral nastiness of many modern horror films, but the emotional violence portrayed is devastating. The violation of the life and body of an innocent woman for reasons beyond her understanding is a genuinely upsetting thing to see. While I may be able to make an argument to class Sleep Tight as a thriller, if I were so inclined, there are few horror films I can think of which have quite the same capacity to shock and disturb.