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“Sleep Tight” isn’t the first film you’d expect from Jaume Balaguero outside of the “[REC]” horror franchise he co-created. A far cry from the found-footage, first-person-shooter-style series that’s very much a product of its contemporary era, his latest film would be unmarked by time if it weren’t for some nefarious text messages on a cell phone and a well-placed joke about Twitter. But for the most part, “Sleep Tight” feels old fashioned — in a good way, hearkening back to more romanticized takes on horror from the tragedies of Edgar Allan Poe to the obsessive love stories of Spanish compatriot Pedro Almodovar.
However, it’s unlikely that the film’s lead Cesar would be as explicitly drawn in any time other than the present, he’s a villain that operates with only a bottle of choloroform and a pad to lull his victims to slumber. A lonely concierge on the verge of suicide when we first meet him, Cesar pines for Clara, the woman who lives on the top floor of his building and spends his evenings directly under her bed, waiting for her to fall asleep to drug her and plot ways to draw her closer to him during the day. The devotion would be admirable if it weren’t so despicable and there’s a smarmy, enterprising girl down the hall who keeps him honest to some degree by extorting him every time she catches him making a visit. Yet as Cesar realizes he’s invisible whether he’s hiding or not, his desperation creeps into his routine and threatens to blow his cover.
Balaguero is far more elegant in tracking Cesar than Cesar is in his pursuit of Clara. The panoramic visuals are reminiscent of Hitchcock, yet Balaguero sports a deft touch for building suspense that’s all his own. Part of this stems from a reversal from “[REC],” since the horror of “Sleep Tight” doesn’t come from the situation, but from its central character of Cesar. As the man at the front desk with the keys to all the apartments, Cesar’s calm façade masks the fact he’s a walking index of terrifying behavior, irrational and fond of unorthodox applications for cleaning products. Thanks to Luis Tosar’s nuanced performance that creates empathy for his self-created isolation, Cesar can never be demonized, which in turn allows for Balaguero to play upon the fact that the closer you grow towards him, the creepier the film ultimately becomes.
“Sleep Tight” would be perfectly fine as a character study of a quiet maniac, as well as the other eccentrics who live in the building, all of whom are lovingly crafted and detailed. But the escalating series of Cesar’s overtures to Clara, which of course are unknown to her while she sleeps, grow biblical in nature — a plan to flood her apartment with bugs backfires – as well as in stature, raising the stakes of the thriller to impossibly high levels that Balaguero amazingly pays off. With an ending so disturbing it just might rival the finale of “Oldboy,” “Sleep Tight” doesn’t let its beauty get in the way of its bite, but it’s a film that nonetheless lifts horror to an artform.