Sleep Tight: Film Review

Unsettling tale of obsession benefits from black-comic undercurrents

Spanish scaremister Jaume Balagueró goes for more subtle scares.

Just a few weeks before American moviegoers revisit Psycho via Sacha Gervasi's biopic Hitchcock, a Spanish import hits our shores offering an icky new cousin for Norman Bates. Jaume Balabueró's effective thriller Sleep Tight puts more value on slow-building bad vibes than on pulled-curtain shock, but its treatment of mental illness and voyeurism, lightly salted with pitch-black humor, will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the older film.

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Luis Tosar plays Cesar, concierge at a gorgeous Art Nouveau apartment building in Barcelona. We watch in the opening scenes as he wakes before his girlfriend Clara (Marta Etura), quietly makes himself presentable, and leaves to take his station in a foyer whose crisp, cordial professionalism seems to delight the building's residents. It seems to delight Clara, too, who is all smiles when she comes down to the lobby to leave for the day. Strangely, her friendly greeting to Cesar is one of an acquaintance, not a lover.

That's because Clara doesn't know who she's sleeping with every night. Using his building keys, Cesar sneaks into her apartment before she comes home in the evening, lurks under her bed with chloroform, and knocks her out. He's not only molesting her (Balabueró keeps this off camera) -- for reasons we can't know, he's slowly trying to wreck her life: lacing her toiletries with allergens, sending her anonymous hate mail. He's plaguing other residents as well, in ways that usually can't be traced to him; only when he has fully earned a tenant's goodwill does Cesar slip in a hateful comment, delivered in such sensitive tones the victim can't be sure she's being insulted.

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Tosar plays the role with disturbing finesse, at ease with the subtle tortures he's doling out. Occasional scenes in a nursing home, where Cesar visits his speechless mother and gives her cryptic updates on his schemes, underline both the Psycho connection and the character's mysterious motives: Is he doing this for her, somehow? Is that disturbed look in her eyes fear?

Balabueró and his crew do an excellent job of raising the stakes for Cesar, putting him in jeopardy and forcing us to root for him to escape discovery. Less convincing, perhaps, is the psychological justification that eventually emerges: A mental health professional might reject the script's cause and effect as facile and unrealistic, but it does the job in this context, creating a thoroughly watchable villain whose crimes offer just enough vicarious gratification to leave viewers feeling dirty.

Production Company: Castelao Producciones

Cast: Luis Tosar, Marta Etura, Alberto San Juan, Iris Almeida, Petra Martinez, Carlos Lasarte, Margarita Roset

Director: Jaume Balabueró

Screenwriter: Alberto Marini

Producer: Julio Fernández

Executive producers: Carlos Fernández, Alberto Marini

Director of photography: Pablo Rosso

Production designer: Teresa Gefaell

Music: Lucas Vidal

Costume designer: Marian Coromina

Editor: Guillermo De La Cal

No rating, 100 minutes