Written by: Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini, and Carlo Lucarelli
Directed by: Dario Argento
Starring: Max Von Sydow, Stefano Dionisi, and Chiara Caselli
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"This is what happens when you go chasing ghosts..."
About a decade ago, I discovered a film that was life-altering as a horror fan. Assuming that I'd seen the best the genre had to offer, I naively strolled onto the internet and soon found out that wasn't the case at all, as wave after wave of unseen and unheard of horror films populated the various sites I visited. Among those titles was Suspiria: the title was no doubt intriguing and mysterious, so it was one of the first I tracked down. Its perfect synergy of sight and sound promptly blew me away, and I knew I had to track down more films from this Argento guy. As it turns out, the legendary director ended up being my gateway drug into Italian horror. Though I'd seen the occasional Italian horror film in my youth thanks to the Wizard Video titles populating my rental store shelves, I was never aware of the breadth of the Italian horror movement. However exciting this was, as I made my way through Argento's catalog, I was eventually led to an irrefutable conclusion: that the man clearly lost something as soon as the calendar rolled over into the 90s. One such film released from this era actually managed to elude me for a variety reasons until very recently, when I finally tracked the film down: Sleepless, Argento's return to the giallo, a genre of films he helped to popularize.
Sleepless opens in 1983, where Detective Ulisse Moretti (Max Von Sydow) has been investigating a string of murders. After a young boy's mother is killed before his eyes, Moretti vows to find the perpetrator. The film then flashes ahead seventeen years, and we learn that the main suspect, a dwarf giallo novelist named Vincenzo de Fabritiis turned up dead and the case known as The Dwarf Murders was closed. However, a string of killings resembling The Dwarf Murders begins to start up again, drawing the interest of both Moretti and Giacomo, the boy whose mother was killed in the first murder spree. As the duo continues to investigate and discover that the killer's pattern is synchronized with a nursery rhyme, it becomes more and more possible that Fabritiis never died in the first place and has returned to wreak havoc.
One of the main complaints I level towards Argento's more recent films is their utter lack of the director's signature visual style. While I'm not one who expects directors to never evolve or move outside their comfort zone, it's disconcerting when a director with Argento's visual flair begins to make movies that look like they could have been directed by anyone. This trend culminated in his most recent effort, Mother of Tears, so I was paying particular attention to this in Sleepless. It turns out that it's a bit of a mixed bag: the film isn't nearly the by-the-numbers, point and shoot efforts that Argento has turned in recently, as there are some very well done and suspenseful sequences. An early sequence on a train is especially taut and suspenseful, and makes for an excellent tone-setter. The film also has a modicum of atmosphere at times; though it's not exactly a return to the gothic, color-drenched landscapes of Suspiria or Inferno, the city of Turin is foreboding and ominous at night.
Giallo fans will know that Sleepless follows a fairly well-worn pattern from a storyline perspective. There are a few twists and turns with plenty of murders strewn in among the chaos before the film ultimately climaxes with the revelation of the killer. Argento doesn't do much to separate this one from the giallo pack, but the nursery rhyme aspect is interesting and even a bit demented. Dario's daughter Asia is responsible for the rhyme, which details a farmer killing various animals in a fit of rage. Though the rhyme doesn't really play as big of a role as it should throughout the film (there's only one instance of any character using it to predict or stop the murderer), Max Von Sydow's ominous recitation of it over the end credits is chilling.
As is expected, Argento sort of throws logic to the wind at times as his story unfolds, but it's a generally well told tale, even if it feels overly long at times. The final revelation of the killer is at least a bit logical, if a bit unsatisfying; this scene does result in one of the film's most deranged and effective performances, however. Besides their meandering and mysterious narratives, gialli are also infamous for their inventive murder sequences. The kills of Sleepless don't disappoint, as they exhibit a variety of carnage and good special effects. People are stabbed, shot, and decapitated, among other things, and it's all realized in Argento's typically brutal and unflinching fashion. The visceral nature of the kills and their accompanying effects feel like something out of a classic giallo at times.
Unfortunately, such moments of classic brilliance are few and far between in Sleepless, as it still just feels like there's something missing here. Though Argento doesn't completely abandon any sense of style, he still doesn't seem to be able to sustain it here. So many scenes are utterly non-descript, and the film really loses some steam by the time it winds down, mainly because there aren't too many characters to care about. Max Von Sydow obviously turns in the best performance, and his Morelli character is by far the most interesting. Everyone else is just too bland, but they are at least surrounded by the interesting dwarf killer mythology that Argento builds, as most of the principal characters are connected to it in some way. At times, it feels as if the movie would have greatly benefited from being a bit more streamlined and simply focusing on the characters of Morelli and Giacomo. Genre fans will also notice that Argento collaborated with his house band, Goblin, for this one, but, like the director himself, the band seems to have lost something. Aside from the hypnotic opening theme, there's nothing of note, as the rest of the score is typical, mediocre horror fare.
And, ultimately, that pretty much sums up Sleepless: it's pretty typical and pretty much average, but it's at least interesting. While it's not exactly the disappointment that much of Argento's recent work has been, one can't help but shake the feeling that he's still better than this. The film was released on DVD about eight years ago by Artisan, and, as you can see, the disc features a full-frame, open-matte transfer that's certainly not going to win any awards. Besides the modified aspect ratio, the picture is soft and full of scratches. As far as audio goes, there's both 5.1 and 2.0 English tracks that are adequate. The only special features are cast and crew filmographies, the film's trailer, and some trailers for other Artisan releases. This release is long out of print, but not particularly difficult to find. If for some reason you can't track it down, don't have any sleepless nights over it--it still frequents many video stores, which is all you need. Rent it!
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