If you endured the malformed Texas Chainsaw 3D this weekend, you'll know how not to make a monster sympathetic. Spanish thriller Sleep Tight may not make a creep cuddly, but it delves deeply and convincingly into the twisted vision of a sociopath.
For this Fantastic Fest 2011 favorite, director Jaume Balagueró walked away from what he calls the terror verite of [Rec] and [Rec2]. However, he doesn't move location much: Again, the victims are locked in a Spanish apartment complex with a monster. However, this time they have no reason to distrust the creature in their midst. After all, balding, soft-spoken César (Luis Tosar) is their concierge, the man they trust to handle their mail, unclog the sink, keep bugs out of their apartment. In fact, he is the monster under the bed – quite literally.
Originally conceived of by writer Alberto Marini for a New York apartment complex, Sleep Tight (aka Mientras Duermes) relocates to Barcelona. The old world gentility of the building depends on Cesar to keep it running, but beneath the surface he is a one-man cancer. His problem, he explains as he stands on the rooftop, is happiness. He cannot feel it, and he resents it in others. His true purpose is to destroy any sense of joy. So when he is confronted by the perpetually up-beat Clara (Marta Etura, The Impossible), it's a question of how far he will go to inflict his invasive, insidious form of misery.
Marini's genius twist is that, while a lesser, more generic thriller would have put the camera on Clara, he tracks Cesar. Tosar was rightly awarded a Gaudí and nominated for a Goya for his performance as the emotionally stunted concierge. It's a depiction of gross immorality on a par with Philippe Nahon's rage-filled performance at the dark heart of Gaspar Noe's Seul Contre Tous. The difference is that Cesar is a serpent, clasped to the community's bosom, and incapable of resisting the temptation to make everyone around him miserable. From deliberately giving a dog diarrhea to framing a colleague for stalking, it's a perfect depiction of amorality.
It's Tosar's performance that both draws the audience in to Cesar's warped world and holds them there. However, it would never have worked so well without Etura. During filming, the pair were one of Spanish cinema's golden couples, and there's a sense of intimacy that makes their relationship both more convincing and ever more stomach-curdling.
This being a Spanish-language film, there's no creator commentary. However, the exhaustive making-of documentary 'Cesar's World' is one of the more incisive dissections of the film making process. At 107 minutes, it's actually longer than the feature itself, but it remains fascinating. In among the technical details, there are some fascinating insights into how actors function on-set, and how having the focus always be on Cesar changes the challenges for everyone around him.
Also available this week:
Frankenweenie (Disney) Tim Burton was politely shown the door from Disney for the original short about a boy and his resurrected mutt, but it was the House of Mouse that finally brought the full length version to the screen. There's no small dismay that his most artistically and emotionally complete project in a decade was one of his least commercially successful, but since The Nightmare Before Christmas was desperately unloved on its original release, there's a good chance that the Fantastic Fest fave will be revived at home (read our review here).
Dredd 3D (Lionsgate) Another long-awaited passion project that debuted at Fantastic Fest. Future fascist Judge Dredd dumps the cheesiness that sometimes cripples the British comic for a minimalist brutal future (read our review here. Also read our interview with Urban and writer Alex Garland here).
Compliance (Magnolia) Craig Zobel's queasy follow-up to the under-rated Great World of Sound turned heads at SXSW last year with its unnerving depiction of how far people will stoop to indulge authority. A weird but brilliant leap for the man that cofounded cult flash website Homestar Runner (read our review here).
Two Lane Blacktop (Criterion) Monte Hellman's odd ode to the open road may be most famous for the sole dramatic performances by Dennis Wilson and James Taylor, but is a masterpiece of minimalist trips. This new edition, approved by Hellman, comes complete with two commentaries, turbo-boosted bonuses, and an essay/love letter by Richard Linklater.
Jack & Diane (Magnolia) Lycanthropy has long been a metaphor for raging female teen hormones, but with this contemporary tale of lesbian longing it's hard not to see the moonlight shadow of the mighty Ginger Snaps franchise over its shoulder.
Archer Season Three (Fox) Lana. Lana. Lana! The world's greatest, sleaziest and most self-obsessed superspy returns for the third season of the Spike animated smash, just in time for season four's debut on Jan. 17.
Tales of the Night (GKids) French shadow puppet master Michel Ocelot (Kiriko and the Sorceress) adopts CG with his latest sumptuous selection of fairy tales. VOD this week before retail release on Jan. 29.
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