Apartment concierge Cesar (Luis Tosar) is such a misanthrope he makes As Good As It Gets’ Melvin Udall look like Mickey Mouse. Despite the friendliness of the building’s tenants, Cesar’s M.O. is to make their lives a misery – after all, as far as he’s concerned, happiness is an emotion he was born never to experience, so why should anyone else be content? His campaign of hate becomes all the more monstrous as the beautiful Clara (Marta Etura) proves unfailingly chirpy – for a while…
There’s much to recommend about Sleep Tight, from Tosar’s intense, heavy-browed performance to the claustrophobic panic of Cesar’s increasingly outlandish machinations. There’s a hint of Norman Bates to Cesar in the latter’s tight-lipped encounters with his paralysed mother, and like Hitchcock before him, Balaguero’s adept at managing suspense in both horror and thriller milieus.
The narrative takes a genuinely stomach-churning lurch in the second half and Balaguero’s more than content to make the audience suffer along with Clara, our skin crawling as Cesar floods her apartment with insects or inserts allergens into her face cream.
Yet, despite its efficiency and the quality of both cast and crew, there’s almost no enjoyment to be had from this overwhelmingly creepy piece. It’s memorable but so is a bad dream. Balauguero’s intentions are clearly to level our sympathies with Cesar, to lull us into revulsion at his actions with simultaneous hope that he evades capture. While he’s certainly a pathetic and sad character, he’s also an illogical one, especially in comparison with other movie monsters. Patrick Bateman might be insane and delusional and possibly not even a real murderer, but his (possibly imagined) killings are borne out of jealousy, greed and rage. Hannibal Lecter is driven by curiosity and vengeance, Jigsaw and John Doe by rigorous moral compasses. All of these villains share intelligence and charisma – even Doe, an off-screen threat for much of Se7en, is as mesmerising to the viewer as to Detectives Somerset and Mills.
Cesar, on the other hand, is a sad sack, a worthless human being who can’t even point to mental illness as a cause of his malice. His nastiness is simplistic and there’s certainly an initial guilty and voyeuristic thrill to witnessing his late-night sadism. But while the cruelty ramps up, audience interest wanes as Cesar’s lack of depth – a nasty action fails, so then he enacts something more horrible, and repeats until successful – grows tiresome.
The narrative might appeal to hardened horror fans, with its blend of psychological torment and skin-crawling set-pieces resonating long in the psyche. The problem is, for the majority of audiences, watching an evil, charmless man behave with increasing malevolence, until he commits an act of such violation that many viewers will feel sick, just isn’t a worthwhile way to spend an evening.