This morning, you probably woke up to your normal routine (maybe slightly augmented by falling back an hour in time). You hopped in the shower, brushed your teeth, drank some orange juice with breakfast, and cursed yourself for the thousandth time for drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth. Most of all though, you felt safe.
And you had no idea there was a man sleeping under your bed.
Director Jaume Balagueró (REC, REC 2) uses that uneasy non-knowledge for both horror and humor in Sleep Tight (Mientras Duermes), a film that balances precariously over the Dark Comedy and Funny Home Invasion genre bins. The overall result is chilling proof that Balagueró can take us back into an apartment building while delivering a completely different scare.
Before the sun even has a chance to get its morning coffee, César (Luis Tosar) is climbing out of bed, the adorable Clara (Marta Etura) still sleeping deeply beside him. He’s the front desk man in an apartment building who smiles and opens doors for the tenants, tends to their complaints, and takes considerably long lunch breaks. By the time he’s been up and at ‘em for hours, Clara stretches herself down the elevator and out of the lobby for work. They say a sweet, slightly flirtatious goodbye, but it’s obvious: they aren’t dating, and there’s no reason César should have been in her bed.
There’s a great deal of trust in our everyday lives. A trust that often goes unnoticed. Balagueró and Tosar have both called upon that (and exploited it) to build a story where a minor element of Clara’s life is proven to be major because of the access he has and the level of confidence that he inspires simply because of his job title. He is a nervous Tyler Durden with keys to every house.
The film also offers an insider view into the daily tasks of a man dividing his time unsuccessfully between a simple job, his obsession, and the little girl down the hall who’s seen his nightly adventure and is blackmailing him for money and adult videos. Yet, there’s never an insight into his mind beyond what we see on screen, and certainly no explanation for why he’s torturing this young woman.
On a pure story note, what’s curious about Sleep Tight is that our villain isn’t all that dastardly in the beginning. He’s a mental teenager pulling off ineffective pranks despite unfettered access. That ball gets rolling (of course), but it makes the film so much more rounded than if we’d climbed into bed with César and Clara in the black depths of his descent. It offers light in the darkness, which makes everything easier to see and appreciate.
The main roles are delivered with competing vibrancy and stoic naturalism. Etura shines as a gorgeous young woman who breathes life into every room she enters. She’s easy like Sunday morning with every movement and motion, and you can imagine that it’s simply her beauty, happiness (or the fact that he can’t have her) that drives César to do what he does (even if we never know the real answer). On that note, Tosar is a master. He fully realizes a character that we should hate, but his shy awkwardness slathered on with a half-smile makes him loveable even as the darkness falls. The supporting cast is strong, but this is really a two-person show. A cat and mouse game that the mouse doesn’t even know about.
With REC, Balagueró and his co-director Paco Plaza created something claustrophobic, frantic and abjectly terrifying. With Sleep Tight, the latter has shown that he’s keen on apartment buildings, but that he can craft something inside one that’s wholly different from his other work. If nothing else, he’s shown a grand range here set against his previous films. The camera work, the writing and the final product are miles away tonally from REC, but the fear is still very real even if it’s just a different flavor of tainted toothpaste.