The Spanish-language film Sleep Tight opens with a very real and personal description of what it’s like to live with depression, foregrounded by the radio static of callers grappling with overwhelming melancholy. The host of the advice show leaves us with words of encouragement, saying that “there’s always a way to be happy, and we just have to find it.” The way that César (Louis Tosar) finds to deal with his depression, however, takes the sinister and unrealistic form of a vendetta against all those who have what he is incapable of obtaining: happiness.
Getting out of bed, César lovingly re-covers Clara (Marta Etura) with the blankets and gets ready for work in complete silence so as not to disturb the sleeping woman. As he goes through his daily, mundane activities as the concierge of an upscale apartment building, his interactions with the various residents are characterized by cordial professionalism and reticence. The contrast between the laconic César and the boisterous Clara is highlighted as we then voyeuristically watch her perform her morning routine. Her cheerfulness and optimism are both palpable and indelible as she dances exuberantly to the loud music filling her apartment, unaware of the monsters that lurk under her bed.
When the quintessentially happy Clara greets César in the lobby on her way out, she oddly treats him more like a casual acquaintance than a lover. Soon we realize the disgusting truth that she is completely unaware of her nighttime companion—using his building keys to sneak into her apartment, César waits under Clara’s bed until she falls asleep, knocks her out with chloroform, and spends the night with her in his arms. But he isn’t going to all this trouble just to snuggle; not only is he taking advantage of her sexually, he’s also enacting subtle forms of abuse—lacing her lotion with irritants, planting insect bait and eggs in her apartment—in an attempt to gradually chip away at her perpetually cheery demeanor.
Clara isn’t César’s only victim, as he also schemes to destroy the happiness of the building’s other inhabitants. César infiltrates the homes of these well-meaning individuals only to torment them, to subject them to the unhappiness with which he is plagued. Tosar’s portrayal of this severely troubled creep is both genial and disturbing. On the surface César is a beloved doorman who has earned the trust and goodwill of the building’s tenants, but the few times he lets his real nature break through his stolid exterior his malevolence is especially intense. In these moments, whether slamming residents with acutely malicious remarks or recounting his sinister schemes to his mute and visibly terrified mother, César is an utterly chilling anti-protagonist.
Sleep Tight is more like a slow burn of suspense than an explosion of horror, almost to a fault. It takes a while to wake up, gradually arousing a sense of unease rather than supplying shocking jolts of horror, and relies too heavily on its questionable psychological premise. The first scenes are intentionally confusing, as discussed in the lengthy DVD bonus featurette, and despite the subtle hints at what is really going on, César’s methodical habits make for a tedious 15 minutes of exposition. The truly disturbing nature of the film only comes with the realization of the terrible truth about the seemingly quotidian earlier events and the resulting apprehension of what is to come.
The most gripping scenes depict César’s near discovery in Clara’s apartment, demonstrating Balabueró’s effectiveness in leading the audience to empathize even with such an unsavory protagonist. You share in César’s panic as he attempts to remain undetected, yet if you make the unfortunate but logical mistake of asking yourself the question “Would I really care if this creep got caught?” the tension that was so carefully constructed throughout the film simply vanishes. When the protagonist is basically the “bad guy”, it’s essential that he have a meaningful, believable motivation, and this is simply lacking in Sleep Tight. César’s reason for viciously meddling with people’s lives—only to make them share in his chronic unhappiness—is entirely unsubstantial and seemingly unrealistic from a psychological perspective.
So while most of the film builds up an ample amount of suspense, the pace of Sleep Tight continues its laborious meandering, the momentum fizzling out after the electrifying struggle that acts as a premature climax and not returning until the final moments of the film. And while the informative but interminably exhaustive DVD featurette reflects the great amount of thought that went into the making of Sleep Tight, it still can’t justify the muddled motivations and sluggish suspense of this vicariously voyeuristic thriller that doesn’t so much thrill you as… put you to sleep.