Last year, while friend and frequent collaborator Paco Plaza was driving a nail into their [Rec] franchise, Jaume Balagueró was slicking up this taut psychological thriller, which leans a little too heavily on the dime-store psychoanalysis of Psycho‘s disheartening studio-mandated finale. It begins on a Monday, with César (Luis Tosar) waking up next to some honey, Clara (Marta Etura), and going about his day as the doorman of their lovely Barcelona apartment building, setting out the day’s newspapers, sorting mail, opening the elevator door for tenants, and offering to feed Sra. Verónica’s dogs while she’s out for the evening. But things aren’t as they seem: Clara doesn’t speak to César as a lover might (that isn’t him in the photo by her bed), a foul-mouthed brat ballsily shakes him down for money, and rather than feast on the potato pie that Sra. Verónica (Petra Martínez) left for him, he feeds it to her pooches. There’s also his mother, dying at a nearby hospital and forced to endure in her seemingly catatonic state her son’s curious rants about the building’s one particularly tough holdout. César, it seems, doesn’t like it when people are happy.
Balagueró is a skillful craftsman of glossy Hollywood calling cards, and Sleep Tight, which chronicles César’s weeks-long assault on Clara’s particularly adamant optimism, moves briskly as the overzealous doorman sets one joy-wrecking mouse trap after another. Hiding under Clara’s bed almost every night, César chloroforms her so that he can inject a rash-causing substance into her beauty products, but when the makeup she cakes onto her face come morning allows her to keep up her spirits, he seizes on her fear of bugs by infesting her apartment with roaches. The stakes get higher with every breadcrumb the creep lays down, and the film derives sometimes remarkable corkscrew tension from watching César being backed into a corner. It delights in young Úrsula (Iris Almedia Molina) conning César for money (even pornography, recognizing the seed of a future perv in the little girl) in order to keep his secret, and it absolutely thrills in seeing the doorman try to weasel his way out of Clara’s apartment after she brings her boyfriend home and César, hiding under the bed as the couple fucks, accidentally chloroforms himself.
Tosar has a history of playing off-color characters, subtly but boldly articulating motivation in ways that often pick up a story’s slack, and Sleep Tight‘s suspense is enriched by his customary conviction; beyond the sweat on César’s brow, the panic in his eye, his sly movement and clever explanation for why he was inside Clara’s apartment compellingly suggest a history of similar close calls. Of course, not so credible are many of the other characterizations, from the nosy neighbor (Carlos Lasarte) who rather inexplicably hounds César with the knowledge of his past employment to Clara herself, who, though she’s tormented almost daily with scary text messages and letters from a secret admirer who likely resides in the building, never suspects César of being the source. As she isn’t in cahoots with the cops, her obliviousness is almost cartoonish, as is her sunny, almost naïve disposition, especially during an apartment-wide, only-in-the-movies dance she puts on to shake the bad spell of her admirer’s latest torrent of correspondences.
César’s process may be convincing, at least more convincing than Clara’s boyfriend, Marcos (Alberto San Juan), confronting César after a telling discovery instead of going to the police, though the rationale for the process is more dubious. The idea of a man almost obsessive-compulsively going about erasing people’s joy because he’s unable to feel joy himself is tritely beholden to the cheapest sort of blame-the-mother psychoanalysis. This is a shame, because given that the building’s maid describes the tenants as “posh shits” at one point, the stage seems set for a horror film about class warfare. Times are tough these days, even in Spain, but rather than spike his genre kicks with Buñuelian chutzpah and have César torment his victims in an attempt to level the playing field between the haves and have nots, Balagueró gives us an exterminating angel that, however creepy, has caught a light sneeze from Norman Bates. But times are tough even at the movies these days, so an old-fashioned but spry game of cat and mouse will suffice.