by Jack Sommersby
While the film is no "Se7en," it's still worth a look.Dario Argento's Sleepless is an unexpected delight: an involving, scary, enthralling thriller that is nevertheless hurt by some undeniable flaws. As usual, trumped-up plot contrivances and behavioral inconsistencies infect an Argento outing like the bubonic plague, which some fans defend as irrelevant in the Italian horror genre known as the giallo, of which Argento has contributed some good (Suspiria), passable (Tenebre), and bad (Phenomena) entries. I disagree. No film is impervious to common criticism, and since Sleepless isn't some blood-and-guts showcase -- it's a suspense thriller with a serial killer at the center of it all -- illogic and implausibilities do indeed qualify as demerits here. But for the most part the film is gruesomely affecting in all the ways intended, successful at enveloping the viewer from start to finish. Overall, it isn't a particularly great piece of work; yet as a work of gut-wrenching terror, it gets the job done. And unlike his fellow giallo counterpart's nadir, Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper, which featured a dastardly fiend slicing up beautiful women while quacking like Donald Duck during the acts, Sleepless is assured stuff and devoid of insufferable unintentional laughs. (Not to mention, it scares you exactly when intended -- an accomplishment not to be taken lightly in light of all the botched thrillers that come our unfortunate way more often than not.)
"A Very Fine Dario Argento Serial-Killer Thriller"
The story opens in Turin, Italy, 1983, where a homicide detective named Maretti (an appealing but obvious boat-payment performance from Max Von Sydow) promises Giacomo, a murder victim's thirteen-year-old son, that he will find his mother's killer if it takes him the rest of his life. We're then transported to present-day Turin -- and into the bedroom of the unseen client of a hooker who's repulsed and screaming at the filthy things she's been asked to do. The man throws her some cash, demands she leave, pops some blue pills, and climbs under the covers, while the hooker, before making her way out the door, nervously stumbles over a piece of furniture. A variety of shiny knives and axes spill out from it, and after hurriedly stuffing her contents back into her purse, she gets the hell out there and hops on the nearest train. Yet she unknowingly has picked up a blue folder belonging to the man, and in it contains a series of newspaper articles concerning "The Dwarf Murders" dating back to 1983. She then gets a call on her cell phone, and darned if it isn't the client vowing to slash the life out of her! She unsuccessfully tries to disembark from the virtually deserted train, and is stalked down the aisles by the maniac.
This is the first of Argento's suspenseful set pieces, and it's a knockout. While the spatial logistics of the narrow confines aren't exactly adhered to and made comprehensible, the camera is used quite actively in putting us right there amidst the action, where we share the victim's terror at sensing imminent danger yet having no clue as to the inevitable point of contact. Previously, Argento was ever the practitioner of 2.35:1 widescreen framing, where here the shooting ratio is cropped a bit narrower to 1.85:1, which gives the proceedings more of a claustrophobic, vulnerable feel. Rather than being afforded a clear-cut view of things during the moments of suspense, we're often deprived of a comfortable vantage point, allowing the physical threat to alarmingly pop out of nowhere from the periphery, which is certainly an old trick but a reliable one when used adroitly, as it is here, with the Panaflight camera equipment making good use of subjective tracking. The fantastic music score by Goblin, which has drive and verve and pounds forth the suspense, is also a considerable asset (which isn't a big surprise considering they and Argento collaborated on the classic score for George A. Romero's brilliant Dawn of the Dead some twenty-four years ago).
So far, so good. Another murder occurs shortly thereafter in the parking lot of the train station, the police are called in, and suspicions arise that either the infamous Dwarf Killer (who was presumed dead years ago) or a copycat of his past work is the culprit responsible. Maretti is consulted being that he was the lead investigator of the case at the time, but he's retired now and just wishes to remain insulated from all the unpleasantness he left behind. But then the grown-up Giacomo is summoned back to Turin by his childhood friend, Lorenzo, in light of the current events. Eventually, Maretti relents and starts conducting an unofficial investigation of his own, with Giacomo tagging along. Was the man Maretti pinned the blame on back in the day really responsible? And, if so, then a copycat must be at work because that very same man turned up dead from an apparent suicide years ago. Or was that really him? A court order to exhume the body gets under way, and the viewer is as pleasurably uncertain as to these off-putting happenstances as the heroes. And there's a baffling point to the case that Maretti just can't get a handle on: why the murders back in 1983 were concentrated in one specific neighborhood, while the current ones are being committed all over town. The answer to this isn't divulged until the very end, but what it ultimately means is the stuff of nightmares.
Despite some outlandish aspects to the story -- like the killer having been inspired by verses from a manuscript of nursery rhymes titled "The Death Farm", and subsequently leaving cut-outs of animal shapes next to the corpses -- Argento does a commendable job of keeping things moving so we're never given too much time to belabor over them. While the running time is much too long at one-hundred-and-sixteen-minutes, with some extraneous flab clogging down the narrative in the middle section, Argento's sense of pacing has grown considerably more astute over the years; even when an individual scene or whole sequence doesn't quite come off, it segues into an effective one more often than not, so we feel little is lost in these occasional lapses. In his previous work Argento seemed oblivious to character and story, where he seemed to regard actors as puppets and dialogue as mere filler material; here, the characterizations are plausible, the acting passable, and the whodunit aspect to the story well-maintained. Matters are also abetted by an onscreen killer who's an intelligent, downright clever little fiend -- for example, after getting scratched by a victim, to avoid possible DNA sampling, he cuts off each of her fingernails down to the bloody quick.
While it doesn't have the voluptuous control of Irwin Kershner's The Eyes of Laura Mars or the unnerving you-are-there vitality of William Lustig's Maniac, Sleepless is, in its own right, good at fulfilling its obligations. I couldn't quite make heads or tails of who the killer might be, only to feel foolish in the end in that the clues were always right there, yet full of admiration for Argento for tactfully gliding over them without acting the uncouth killjoy by spelling them out. And the story actually adds up in the end, where you can actually go back and see that all the pieces fit snugly (though not mechanically) together. There could possibly be more emphasis on atmosphere and less on standard-issue scenes like the detective-in-charge issuing Moretti verbal warnings not to "get in the way"; and the subplot involving Giacomo winning back his childhood love, Gloria (Chiara Caselli), and thus taking her away from her starch-collar of a suitor, Fausto (Roberto Accornero), is incorporated solely to earmark the man as a potential (though false) threat later on. But for the most part (like alternating the narrative between Moretti and Giacomo) Argento's decisions are sound.
Yet that doesn't include all of the plot developments, some of which are awfully iffy. Instead of sticking to the rudiments of sensible plotting, Argento (who co-wrote the screenplay) trots out a few sequences that really scrape the bottom of the Plausibility Barrel, as if he'd just snatched the ideas out of thin air and just ran with them, regardless of whether or not they made the slightest bit of sense. When an expensive gold fountain pen belonging to the killer is found in the parking lot of the train station by a conniving rent-a-cop (who values it at about five-thousand dollars), instead of taking it to a pawn shop, he opts to strike a bargain with the man he knows to be the killer by meeting him face-to-face in an isolated location(!), where, of course, he meets an untimely demise. Shortly thereafter, Giacomo's best friend's attorney father remarks at the dinner table in front of his guests that he can't find his pen, which, since this occurs early on, is an obvious ploy to center our suspicions on him rather than the real killer he most certainly is not. Later, a trio of fast-food workers are talking about the Dwarf Killer before heading home for the night, which not only blatantly spells out that the one without a ride is going to get it, but the way Argento has devised the sequence, she starts wildly panicking on the train on the way home and is to the point of hysteria by the time she's fumbling about for the key to her apartment building. But since she never saw anything to alarm her on the train, and being that the killer wasn't even on it -- he awaited her arrival outside her home -- we're clueless as to the reason for her panic, and also whether the killer knew her, and if he didn't, how he knew where she lived.
In moments like these, Argento exudes the air of either smugness or naivety -- the latter in that he's truly oblivious to the rudiments of common-sense plotting, the former in the conviction that he's so spectacularly talented mere implausibilities which might stick to lesser directors are incapable of even remotely negatively adhering to his supposedly majestic work. Yet judging by the affable nature and playfulness in his work, I'd say that Argento simply wishes to entertain, to give audiences as good a time in watching his films as he obviously had in making them. Sometimes this isn't enough, mind you, when the writing and acting are bad, and the only thing on positive display are the attention-getting camerabatics. With Sleepless, Argento has created no masterpiece, and not even a film you could attach the descriptive 'excellent' to with a clear conscience. On the other hand, there's plenty of suspense to had here, along with an array of imaginative murder sequences, well-done gore, a great full-frontal nude scene, and, most of all, a sense of thought-out unity, indicative of a director who may come up short in places but succeeds in the end by apparently caring enough about the audience to do his darndest to tell a good story.Good enough to justify a rental on a 2-for-1 day at the video store.
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originally posted: 03/05/03 18:07:37