Lacking the market influence of the major Hollywood studios, for much of its existence the modern Spanish horror film has been overshadowed by its contemporaries. Generally regarded favourably by both fans and critics, Spain’s genre output includes several genuine classics like Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) – the most successful Spanish horror film ever made – and the Guillermo del Toro-produced hit The Orphanage (2007), as well as a number of cult favourites and a great many competent but lesser efforts. With leading lights Amenábar and del Toro moving on to other things – Amenábar away from horror entirely (with The Sea Inside, 2004, and Agora, 2009) and del Toro on his twin path between big-budget studio pictures (Blade 2, 2002) and smaller, intensely personal Spanish-language films like The Devil’s Backbone (2001) – it was left to Catalan director Jaume Balagueró to carry the standard for the contemporary Spanish horror scene.
By the time he released his most successful film, [Rec] (2007), Balagueró was already a key figure in the Spanish genre, thanks to his acclaimed debut feature, The Nameless (1998). That success boded well for his future, but his attempts to move into the world of international horror have been dogged by problems. Despite its critical applause, The Nameless would not be released in the USA until 2005, when it was dumped direct to video. Balagueró’s English-language follow-up, Darkness (2002), was heavily (and somewhat pointlessly) trimmed before receiving a half-hearted theatrical release in the US in 2004. His next film, Fragile (2005) starred Calista Flockhart, but sat on a shelf for five years. By the time it finally appeared, any international interest in the film had long since dissipated. Both films are stylish, atmospheric ghost stories that should have an audience, not least of all because of their casts: Darkness starred Giancarlo Giannini (Hannibal), Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood) and Lena Olin (Alias), while Fragile featured Richard Roxburgh (Van Helsing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and Elena Anaya, who was also in Van Helsing.
Following these setbacks, it’s not entirely surprising that Balagueró returned to Spain – and to the Spanish language – for his next project, an instalment in the Films to Keep You Awake (Películas para no dormir) series. Mainly funded by Filmax, the company most heavily associated with Spanish horror, and overseen by genre legend Narcisco Ibáñez Serrador, the series brought in six well-known directors, including Balagueró, Paco Plaza and Álex de la Iglesia, with each one handling a single episode of roughly 60 minutes in length. Balagueró’s contribution, To Let (Para entrar a vivir, 2006), is one of the finest in the series, but unlike his previous films, he downplays the supernatural, atmospheric angle in favour of brutal violence and nerve-shredding tension. The film’s central characters, a young couple in search of a new apartment, find themselves at the mercy of an insane landlady who has decided they would be the perfect tenants for her crumbling old block of flats, whether they like it or not. Their would-be neighbours are already home, chained and gagged in their maggot-ridden kitchens or filthy bathrooms in a twisted version of domestic bliss. Following To Let, Balagueró delved further into the world of explicit violence with the hectic, blood-drenched [Rec] and its 2009 follow-up, [Rec] 2, both co-directed by Balagueró and Paco Plaza. Like Cloverfield (2008) and George Romero’s lacklustre Diary of the Dead (2007), Balagueró and Plaza took the ‘found footage’ approach, with the handheld cameras lending the already frantic material another shot of adrenaline. Following [Rec] 2, Balagueró and Plaza decided to direct separate sequels, the first of which – Plaza’s [Rec] 3: Genesis – was released in 2012. Balagueró’s contribution, [Rec]: Apocalypse, is scheduled to appear in 2013.
Released in Spain in late 2011, Sleep Tight (Mientras duermes) is Balagueró’s sixth feature film, and the first he hasn’t at least co-written himself. This time the script was prepared entirely by Alberto Marini, a Filmax executive who has worked with Balagueró on most of his films, as ‘director’s creative assistant’ (Darkness), story editor (Fragile), co-writer (To Let) or co-executive producer on the [Rec] movies. The film centres on César, played by Luis Tosar, a concierge and building manager obsessed with one of the tenants, Clara, an attractive young woman whose sunny disposition provides a sharp contrast with the unstable, chronically unhappy doorman. Ever since he took up the position, César has been sending her a steady stream of offensive, threatening letters, texts and e-mails. As she continues to rise above his torments, César goes even further, until things begin to slip out of his control.
Like To Let and the [Rec] films, Sleep Tight abandons the supernatural elements that appear in his first three feature movies (The Nameless avoids the overtly supernatural, but still takes place in a world haunted by ghosts with sinister cults attempting to summon an evil messiah figure). By removing the infected zombies of [Rec], Balagueró has moved even closer to a realistic world, although admittedly it’s one populated with twisted individuals like César and the landlady from To Let, who is another variation on the twisted parental figures that appear in Balagueró’s earlier films. It’s difficult to view César as one of those, but it’s probably not a coincidence that these characters do very similar jobs. César is one of the hundreds of faceless employees that most people don’t notice as they go through their lives, whether they’re taxi drivers or cleaners. Some of the building’s tenants – most obviously Clara – will stop and chat to talk to him, but most of them simply ignore him. Even the one tenant who complains endlessly about César has no idea of what he’s really like, content to dismiss him as another lazy employee. It’s this attitude that allows him to go largely unnoticed, even when the police are in the building and apparently closing in on their suspect. It helps that César is skilled at masking his true personality, appearing to be a friendly, helpful man. Thankfully, Luis Tosar (Cell 211) is more than up to the task, changing between genial and malevolent with remarkable fluidity but never slipping into a scenery-chewing caricature.
Foregoing the frenzied rush of the [Rec] films, Sleep Tight is deliberately paced, with Balagueró ramping up the tension carefully, concentrating on atmosphere rather than adrenaline. It’s an approach that works well, and the film is every bit as compelling and uncomfortable as The Nameless, a film it resembles somewhat. Some recent Spanish horror offerings – The Orphanage being the most obvious example – have featured cathartic, emotional conclusions, but it’s good to see that Balagueró has (with the exception of Fragile) managed to resist that trend, turning in an appropriately downbeat resolution.