Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Film Review: Sleepless

"Sleepless"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Italian horror maestro Dario Argento proves he still has a few tricks up his sleeve in "Sleepless" (2001), the last truly effective movie he has made, so far.

"Sleepless", upon its initial release was something of a comeback for Dario Argento. His previous film was "Phantom of the Opera" (1998), a movie in which even the most ardent Argento fan will find it difficult to sing the praises of. Some have even gone as far as to call that movie an "embarrassment". It was the beginning of a new, campy direction his work would begin to take. So it was a welcome return when Argento released "Sleepless". Here was a movie which seemed worthy of this great filmmaker's talents.

Dario Argento is often credited as one of the greatest Italian horror filmmakers of all time. He is counted among the most influential, some would say the most influential filmmaker in a sub-genre of horror films known as "giallo" (which means yellow in Italian, and is pronounced the same way).

Giallo describes mystery novels that had yellow covers, which Italians would read. The stories would have horror and supernatural elements to them. They were cheap, in price, and easily accessible to the public.

Argento's films are known for their lavish and devilish death scenes of pretty young women, many have called his work misogynistic. He has an almost fetish for blood. The movies are considered gory and brutally violent, though I never feel that is a fitting description of his work. His movies are made on such a limited budget, the blood in the movies never looks real. I find an "unreal" quality in the fatal death scenes of his movies. I am much more bothered by the American slasher films made which are all blood and guts.

"Sleepless" stars Max von Sydow, the great Swedish actor best known for his collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, as Detective Moretti. Seventeen years ago he believes he solved the Dwarf Murders, a rampant string of murders which plagued the street of Turin. The murderer was suspected to be a dwarf novelist named Vincenzo Fabritiis, who turns up dead during the investigation. For Detective Moretti the case is closed and he has fulfilled a promise he made to the son of one of the victims, Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), who saw his mother died right before his eyes.

Jump to 17 years later and the murders are starting again. It is in the same style of the Dwarf Murders. Was Detective Moretti, now retired, wrong? Did he let the killer escape and now after all these years is at it again? Moretti and Giacomo slowly get brought back into investigating these murders once again.

"Sleepless" isn't exactly an original story. It has elements which link it to previous Argento films such as "The Stendhal Syndrome" (1996) also a police procedural picture, "Deep Red" (1975) about an amateur trying to solve a murder he witnessed and even one of his more recent movies, "Giallo" (2009) also about a cop chasing after a serial killer. But it is not the story which makes "Sleepless" so entertaining, it is the way Argento tells the story, his visuals and his energy. It is a throwback to his earlier films like "Deep Red" or "Suspiria" (1977).

One of the best sequences in the film takes place at the beginning of the movie on a train. A woman is afraid the killer is after her. It is late at night. The train is empty. She receives a threatening phone call. There is no place to run. Argento shoots the scene in darkness, an effective musical score plays in the background by the Goblins (a band Argento discovered and used in "Suspiria"), the audience is kept on edge. We can't see clearly. We are in anticipation. What will happen next? Is the killer after her? Is he on the train? Will anyone help her?

Though Argento keeps the violence on screen, he never shows the murderer. By doing that, the audience never knows when the killer will attack. There is no such thing as a insignificant character in this movie or an important character. Each and every one of them is a possible victim. Argento plays around with this concept by introducing characters to the story, characters we think we be the focal point, and then he kills them off. No one is safe. When you do that, the audience doesn't know what to expect. We are on constant alert. It is a thrilling roller coaster ride.

Usually Argento does not get an actor the caliber of Max von Sydow in one of his movies. He is truly one of the great actors in cinema. His range of films include Bergman's "Seventh Seal" (1957), where he plays a knight that has returned from the crusades and now learns Death has come for him, "A Passion of Anna" (1970), another Bergman classic to American films such as "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965) where he played Jesus, "The Exorcist" (1973) as an aging priest, and Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" (2010).

One would imagine the appearance of Sydow adds respectability to "Sleepless". I can see how it worked in Argento's favor, to say such a great actor was in his movie, but, what did Sydow get in return? They couldn't have paid him that much money. That is not to say "Sleepless" is a bad movie, is it great entertainment, but, Sydow is an awarding winning actor, he is not in these type of movies.

Sydow does what the movie asks of him and he does it well, though, it doesn't require that much of him. For Argento the value of his movies is not in individual performances but, the mood and tone of his stories and how creative he can get with his death scenes. We don't watch Argento movies looking for Academy Award winning acting.

Watching "Sleepless" is sad in a sense, sad because Dario Argento no longer makes movies like this. He makes pure camp now. The movies are no longer suspenseful, energetic, skillful or interesting. He lives on his reputation. We remember what was. He used to be compared to Alfred Hitcock when he began. Critics said he was a filmmaker that understood horror. Back in those days his movies weren't graphic. All the violence was off screen. Later on with "Deep Red" his films changed and became more gory, but there was art to it. Like Sam Peckinpah he was accused for glorifying violence. Making beauty out it.

"Sleepless" should be able to rattle audiences. It should be able to give you a good scare or two. It is Argento near the top of his game and the best movie he has made in the last ten years.