By Cleaver Patterson.

In these days of run-of-the-mill schlockfests it appears Southern Europe is fast becoming the place to go for cutting edge horror. Hollywood seems stuck in the belief that the teenage slasher genre is still alive and well, whilst Britain thinks that featuring television comics such as Ross Noble in the crass outing Stitches (2012) is enough to pass muster. However films such as the criminally underrated The Hidden Face (La Cara oculta, 2011) and now director Jaume Balagueró’s thriller Sleep Tight (Mientras duermes, 2011), prove that countries like Spain are the experts at producing polished, old-school chillers reminiscent of Hitchcock in his heyday.

If you believe that much modern horror has lost the plot (if indeed it ever had any to start with), then Sleep Tight’s twisted take on the woman-in-peril thriller may provide some hope that there is still originality out there. To reveal too much detail would spoil a film which uses surprise over visceral shock to produce genuine fear from apparent normality. Enough to say however that it’s not for those who like horror which throws everything in your face in the hope that some of it sticks. If, on the other hand, you are distressed as much by inference as fact, then Sleep Tight will scare you witless.

César (Louis Tosar) is the doorman of a period apartment block in Barcelona. Bored in his dead end job he becomes obsessed with spying on the building’s inhabitants, in particular the young and carefree Clara (Marta Etura). However, with the arrival of Clara’s boyfriend Marcos (Alberto San Juan), César’s shadowy existence comes to a chilling and unexpected conclusion.

Despite scenes which will make your skin crawl (literally at one point if you have an aversion to bugs), the real magic of Sleep Tight is the way in which Balagueró and writer Alberto Marini create a feeling of unease from the apparently mundane. Take for instance how it follows César in his caretaker rituals, appearing outwardly benign and pleasant to the residents of the apartment block whilst beneath cursing them and planning his revenge on those he sees as taking him for granted. Or as it charts Clara going about her everyday life in what she believes the privacy of her own home (particularly in the intimacy of her bedroom where much of the horror plays out) whilst her every move is in fact being surreptitiously spied upon. It is this targeting of (on the most part) innocent victims and the invasion of an individual’s personal space which is most unsettling, making Sleep Tight look set to do for beds what Psycho (1960) did for showers. As such it should be hailed as a masterpiece of contemporary, creeping terror.

The fact that there is only one scene of truly vicious, visual horror – though lasting mere seconds it is shocking in its unexpectedness and intensity – merely enforces the point that graphic brutality is largely unnecessary in order to produce genuine fear. Knowing that outwardly well-adjusted people like César who could harbour a dark and malevolent flip-side may live right next door to you, would be enough to instill unease in even the most confident and relaxed of people.

Tosar and Etura stand out as César and Clara, amongst a cast of characters wonderful in the sheer banality of their lives, with Etura particularly razor-sharp as the unwitting victim of her secret admirer’s unhealthy obsessions. Couple this with the apartment block’s exquisite Art Nouveau interiors (the perfect backdrop to emphasize the decadent lifestyles of its well-heeled inhabitants) which make the building a character in its own right, and Sleep Tight leaves the viewer with an air of seeping dread which lingers long after the film has ended.

Sleep Tight opens in the UK on March 1st, 2013.

Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.

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