Monday, April 20, 2015

The Uninvited Guest (El Habitante Incierto) (2004)

And so we stumble upon yet another less known Spanish gem of a mystery thriller; one that, from its title may give off the air of your average home invasion story. But rest assured, any similarity to past home invasion flicks ends after the stranger enters the house. Thereupon, Guillem Morales' "The Uninvited Guest" (2004) is one hell of an unpredictable ride into its twisty narrative that will suspend you in a state of constant anxiety.

It all begins one fateful evening, when a man whose face we do not see, enters the plush home of Felix (Andoni Gracia) on the pretext of making an urgent phone call. Felix is living alone ever since his girlfriend Vera (Mónica López) breaks up with him. The stranger requests privacy as he attempts to make the call, and Felix obliges. As the call appears to stretch longer, an impatient Felix returns to the living room to find the stranger missing and the door shut. An inherently paranoid Felix begins to believe that the stranger never left, and is still inside the house, inhabiting it in secret, hiding from plain sight! His fears begin to magnify as he starts to experience sporadic occurrences of strange noises from some corners of the house.

Guillem Morales turns the familiar home invasion genre on its head by making the supposed perpetrator disappear early in the film. Thereby, the stranger isn't physically present in sight, but makes his presence felt; invisible, but tangible enough to mess with the protagonist's psyche, making him restless and giving him sleepless nights. An occurrence such as this, makes way for several questions that give the film its greatest strength. Is there really a presence in the house? Or is Felix just obsessed with the idea, unsatisfied that he never actually saw the stranger leave?

It is common knowledge, that the mind plays tricks, especially when one is alone in a large house. A sound heard quite close by could actually be an amplified version of something far away or in the opposite corner. Sometimes it's the plumbing, and other times, the hollow areas in the construction. Sometimes it is the neighbours upstairs moving their furniture, and when there's a sudden thud, it is only natural to check to see if something fell in the adjacent room. Likewise there are visual false alarms; a shadow here, a reflection there. Foreign presence? Or figment of imagination? 

Morales' play on the matter from a psychological perspective is brilliant and wholly believable considering Felix's personality and the condition of his nerves. But just as we wonder where this would head or how Felix would get out of this situation, another huge surprise is thrown in the unsuspecting viewer's lap as Felix practically walks the footsteps of the invisible stranger in another situation that mirrors his! It's an amazing example of a circular narrative, the kind attempted by the modern master of surreal psychological thrillers, David Lynch. Through these unforeseen events, a lot is revealed about the inner workings of the minds of some of the primary characters, their basest instincts, and morbid ideas of thrills. It is like the whole range of the shades usually associated with an archetypal psychological thriller are explored within a single narrative.

A predominant theme in the film is that of duality. There are recurring events, and sometimes there are shadows of certain occurrences. Events mirror themselves or follow in succession. There's even a doppelganger of one character thrown in. Mónica López plays two characters, Vera and Claudia. This brings to mind the Patricia Arquette dual role in Lynch's "Lost Highway" (1997). It is possible that the purpose of casting the same actress to play these characters is to accentuate the psychological aspect of the story. This doubling up along with the fact that we are perhaps dealing with an unreliable narrator, and the claustrophobic elements associated with an indoors setting, a la Hitchcock, make "The Uninvited Guest" a very interesting mash-up of Lynchian and Hitchcockian ideas.

The result is satisfying enough to keep the viewer enthralled and sufficiently breathless throughout, until some cats are let out of the bag. It is true, that some big revelations give rise to more questions. There is one instance of a gaping contrivance which didn't go down too well with this reviewer either, but it was a necessary evil for Morales to further the plot and compound the intrigue. Not that Morales gets excused, he does lose a point for it, but it isn't any cause for alarm and doesn't reduce the weight of the film to an extent to disappoint the viewer. Moreover, some of the withheld information works in the film's favour, thereby leaving certain bits to interpretation. It's a good move by Morales to not wrap just about everything up in a neat package, which perhaps, would've done the film some disservice.

Credit must be given where it is due, and there is no denying that Guillem Morales has delivered a highly original feature length debut that is brimming with confidence and his command on the craft shows. Well done!

Score: 8/10

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sleep Tight (Mientras Duermes) (2011)

Spanish filmmaker Jaume Balagueró, the helmer of such horror films as the excellent Rec (2007) and the hilariously bad Fragile (2005), dabbles with the voyeur thriller genre this time around and proves that with the right material he can pull off a reasonably taut and disturbing nail-biter.

"Sleep Tight" (2011) is as dark as they come. A creepy-looking, balding and thick-browed Cesar (Luis Tosar) is popular with the occupants of the apartment building where he works as a concierge. He is the ultimate helping hand, the friendly neighbourhood fixer, who would tend to the nice old lady's dogs, fix clogged drain pipes, water plants, and deliver mails among other things. With his convenient presence, he has won over most of the tenants.

But little do they know that there is sickness brewing within and Cesar is really up to no good. Behind those kind gestures is a psychopathic mind at work, out to make life miserable for others, for Cesar is a depressed loner who doesn't know what it is like to be happy. Misusing their trust, he is quietly executing his malicious little plan of creating trouble for the tenants. 

His prime target is the comely young Clara (Marta Etura), who is blissfully unaware that Cesar actually enters her apartment each night, and engages in subtle mischief, including spiking her cosmetics with irritants and even going so far as to molest her as she sleeps, after administering chloroform on her! Life goes on, Clara wakes up all groggy, not realizing why she oversleeps. And in the meanwhile, Cesar is also sending her anonymous hate mail, sometimes with lewd content.

Cesar's malevolent mission appears to develop cracks when the preteen girl Ursula (Iris Almeida) who is on to his sickening deeds raises her price for keeping her mouth shut, and Clara's boyfriend Marcos (Alberto San Juan) gives them a surprise visit.

Balagueró is in assured form here and maintains a firm grip on the material. The casting of Luis Tosar is perfect, in the sense, his very appearance makes us sense something creepy and sinister lurking beneath that smiling exterior. While Tosar's assumed gentlemanly mannerisms exude a kind of warmth, he follows it up quickly by a nuanced change of expression that would make you loathe the guy! 

At various junctures, Cesar's voiceover narrates his worthless state of being, and the desire to give meaning to his life. He regularly visits his old mother who appears to have lost her speech, and updates her about his developments. This is a welcome move, for it adds some kind of mystery to Cesar's motivations. Apart from his obvious pathological state of mind, one can't help but think of a class conflict angle, a la Claude Chabrol's "La Ceremonie" (1995), although this can only be inferred.

In many ways, Cesar's character and the film itself, brings to mind Hitchcock's famous "Psycho" (1960). And why not, considering there's a caretaker/concierge with voyeuristic tendencies, and even an old mother that's mostly there to mystify! In fact, "Sleep Tight" has Hitchcockian written all over it. Balagueró manages to build and keep the tension intact, with an interesting character, and an unsettling, claustrophobic atmosphere of an apartment building. What adds to the scare element considerably, is the fact that the most trusted man, the caretaker, the protector, is actually an antagonist, a trope used to a great effect in Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980). 

Unlike Kubrick's classic however, in an amazing twist to the proceedings, much to our surprise, Balagueró successfully manoeuvres us into rooting for Cesar when he is danger of being caught red-handed. It's a masterstroke that actually makes us skip a beat for a guy who disgusts us for most of the film! The suspense is killing in the said scene and it's a sequence very deftly handled, hardly insulting the viewer's intelligence, as is the case in most such situations.

It's a pity however, that in an attempt to manipulate the script to darker territories, Balagueró and crew resort to the stupid person syndrome; that age old cliché in which there's always at least one character who has to behave in a manner so dumb, as to invite obvious harm. Thankfully there aren't too many such moves and distraction is provided in the form of an ultraviolent, blood-soaked final half hour, complete with a tub and shower, again, reminding of "Psycho" (1960). It is the kind of stuff that will please the gorehounds and disturb the hell out of the squeamish.

It would've been better, had the film not entered slightly melodramatic territories in the culmination, but everything that precedes it successfully keeps us engrossed and thrilled. Balagueró also makes us aware and provides food for thought, albeit in a rather harsh way, about the sad reality of those who are lonely and aging. As Cesar puts it quite bluntly to an old lady in a chilling fashion: "There's no remedy for it"!

Obviously inspired by the Hitchcock brand of suspense, "Sleep Tight" is a terrific psychological thriller well worth your time for its absorbing screenplay and a cracker of a lead performance. 

Score: 8/10