Review: Sleepless

Dario Argento’s fascination with the subconscious reaches a ridiculous low here.

Photo: Artisan Entertainment

In an interview he did for Shivers Magazine, Dario Argento said, “I meet so many fans at festivals and in my Roman shop ‘Profondo Rosso’ and they all say one of two things. It’s either ‘Please complete the Suspiria trilogy,’ or ‘Please can you make another movie like Deep Red.’ This has been going on for years and I’ve been adamantly opposed to doing either. My life and career is my own adventure. I’ve resisted those easy options because I’ve followed my own path no matter where it has led. I want to do what I want when I want to do it not be dictated to by audiences.” Though all of Argento’s ’90s films have rehashed themes from Deep Red. Though Sleepless is unlikely to win Argento any new fans, it must count as a return to form. The film’s overcooked “mama’s boy” syndrome is par for course and recalls Deep Red’s evocation of a repressed subconscious let loose in the present.

Detective Ulisse Moretti (Max von Sydow) approaches a grueling murder scene where a young boy’s mother has had a flute violently and repeatedly shoved into her mouth. This is a classic Argento set piece which recalls the randomness of Deep Red’s classic and mysterious opening sequence. Angela (Barbara Lerici), a prostitute, leaves the home of the film’s faceless killer. He’s sadomasochistic (the prostitute says “you can do those nasty things with someone else!”) though Argento doesn’t reveal the John’s alleged fetish. The film’s next half-hour is riveting, each scene greater than the one prior. A nervous Angela flees the killer’s apartment only to bump into a drawer full of weapons (here, mostly knives and axes). Argento’s camera crawls silently through the apartment, sensuously evoking the killer’s sightline and languid walk. Once she boards a train, Angela thinks she has him beat. Upon opening her bag she discovers she accidentally took a folder from the man’s apartment that extols the murders once committed by the infamous Dwarf Killer.

Though not as gritty as Stendhal Syndrome or gloriously artificial as Suspiria, Sleepless is luminously shot by Academy Award winning cinematographer Ronnie Taylor. The film’s eerie allure is predicated on all sorts of dreamy blue tones and sharp primary colors. After calling a friend and fellow-prostitute (Conchita Puglisi), Angela seemingly assures her safe passage from the train. The phone rings only to reveal the familiar voice of the whispering John she left writhing under bedroom sheets. He spits accusations—he calls her a thief and, like Tenebre’s Maria, must die for her sins. She promises “not to tell” but he couldn’t care less (indeed, he’s already inexplicably on her heels). When Argento is in top form he can be forgiven for faulty timelines and small lapses in logic. Does it really matter that Tenebre’s Peter couldn’t have possibly killed Christiano, wounded his own head and greeted the scared Gianni in such a short time span? Regardless of whether the Sleepless killer managed to board the train along with his potential victim is of little consequence. Her frantic sprint through train cars eerily without passengers makes for a frightening set piece. He eventually kills her but fails to snag his missing envelope. Just as the spectator begins to believe that the killer has departed, the next domino falls. Amanda’s demise is an especially notable one, not so much for its lack of gore than for how Argento cockily celebrates her naïveté: her car has been inexplicably moved from one side of the train station’s parking lot to the other yet she still gets in!

Unfortunately, what follows is hardly worth extolling. The long-retired Moretti returns to the police beat on a nonprofessional basis with Stefano Dionisi’s Giacomo playing as partner (Giacomo is revealed to be the older version of the boy in the opening sequence). Though the case of the Dwarf Killer was closed when the dead body of Vincenzo De Fabritiis (Luca Fagioli) was discovered shortly after the killer’s final murder, a string of new crimes implies that he’s returned (or, at the very least, a copycat killer). The killer leaves a familiar clue behind at every crime scene: a paper cutout of a farm animal. Books written under Vincenzo’s nom de plume are found in the man’s long-abandoned home, now inhabited by the homeless Leone (Massimo Sarchielli). A child’s nursery rhyme called “Animal Farm” (written, incidentally, by Asia Argento) is discovered inside a copy of George Orwell’s own Animal Farm.

Every line of the rhyme details the method behind the killer’s crimes. A picture of a pig is found near Angela’s body. Because the killer perceived her to be a pig, he thusly slit her throat. This is a great gimmick that doesn’t always work to Argento’s advantage. Dora (Barbara Mautino) works at a fast-food restaurant and, before she leaves work, is curiously called a “little rabbit” by one of her co-workers. “The Animal Farm” poem celebrates the death of a rabbit whose teeth are smashed out. When Dora bites into the hand of the Sleepless killer, he smashes her face into a marble wall until her teeth fall out. Assuming the killer never heard Dora being called a “little rabbit,” you may ask yourself why he likens her to a rabbit or how he benefits from his random woman’s death. Either way, Argento’s curious obsession with a child’s rhyme suggests that the killer may be reacting to childhood trauma.

Evidence is found beneath the fingernails of two of the killer’s victims. Though police gather DNA from one site, the results are never made clear. The killer is more careful the second time around, removing his victim’s fingernails after drowning her in a dance club’s fountain. The woman’s death is particularly notable because the club is called a Zoo and he likens her to a cat. As such, he chases her through a series of cavernous staircases while meowing like a cat. Beside her dead body is found the paper cutout of a kitten. Vincenzo’s grave is exhumed and his body is discovered missing, leading everyone to believe that he’s returned from the dead. Before Sydow can fully sink his teeth into Moretti, the character dies of a heart attack while firing bullets at what appears to be a small man’s shadow. Though the death of the train station’s parking attendant implies that the killer might be a person of small stature (the attendant looks down at the faceless killer before meeting his demise), the awesome death of a ballerina (a swan whose neck is “broken”) suggests that the perpetrator is tall and very strong. Argento then unleashes a series of cheap red herrings: Gloria (Chiara Caselli), Giacomo’s ex-girlfriend, scowls without reason while Leon pulls out a small dummy from the basement of the Fabritiis home (could the bum have been feigning Vincenzo’s re-emergence from the dead?). Gloria’s current boyfriend may have his own motive but the strongest case here is the one against the father of Giacomo’s best friend Lorenzo (Roberto Zibetti).

Argento’s films are far from erotic though his ’90s output suggests that he is warming up to the possibilities of sexual release. Trauma’s David sleeps with his reporter girlfriend before a peeping Aura (Asia Argento) cuts short his orgasm. Black Cat’s Annabel welcomes the possibility of love from one of her students. Giacomo, still haunted by the image of his dead mother and the strange hissing sounds surrounding her death, seeks comfort in the arms of the past: the harp-playing Gloria. Though interrupted by a curious phone call from Moretti, Gloria and Giacomo’s sex scene is noticeably warm by Argento standards. Their sex is cut short though there’s an implication that orgasm was reached (at this rate, Argento’s next film might feature full penetration). Where Syndrome’s Alfredo uses sex to wield power, the Sleepless killer is a non-sexual fetishist (indeed, none of his victims have been violated).

Anyone bothered by Deep Red gay subtext may be offended by the overt homoeroticism of Giacomo’s relationship to Lorenzo. Hell, even Lorenzo’s father seems to notice, resenting the lustful stares the young men seemingly exchange. Sleepless is new enough that its ending shouldn’t be spoiled for any Argento fans who haven’t had the chance to see it. I will say, though, that it’s both predictable and downright silly. Argento can still get beneath your skin and while Sleepless certainly features a good half dozen set pieces worth taking a look at, the giallo director’s fascination with the subconscious has reached a ridiculous lows here.

 Cast: Max von Sydow, Ulisse Moretti Stefano Dionisi, Chiara Caselli, Gabriele Lavia, Rossella Falk, Paolo Maria Scalondro, Roberto Zibetti, Roberto Accornero, Barbara Lerici Barbara Mautino, Conchita Puglisi, Massimo Sarchielli, Elena Marchesini  Director: Dario Argento  Screenwriter: Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini  Running Time: 117 min  Rating: R  Year: 2001  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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