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There are few things more satisfying when watching a movie than a favourite director managing to bring back some of the old magic after a long drought of decent work and reminding you just why you loved them in the first place. There were flashes of the old Lucas in Episode III, enough to stop you entirely washing your hands of the prequels. 16 Blocks showed that Richard Donner could still pull off decent work, in spite of being corrupted by cheerfully racist/sexist/homophobic Lethal Weapon sequels. As for Russell Mulchay…well, Highlander is still a really enjoyable movie…

Then we come to the maestro of Italian suspense, Dario Argento. Bursting onto the international scene with his mould-carving thriller The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, back in 1970, he scaled increasing heights during the 70s and 80s with films like Suspiria, Inferno and Tenebrae. Hitting a few potholes as he went into the 90s, including the largely unwelcome American debut Two Evil Eyes, things were looking rather bad, and even the most fervent of Argento devotees had just about written him off when it came being a creative force. Then something took people by surprise.

Ignoring the poor showing that was Trauma, Argento went back to his roots, creating a detective thriller in the Giallo mould which would demonstrate his ability to create sequences of high-tension and suspense built around a tantalizing mystery. Goblin reformed to provide another haunting score, and Argento crowned the lot with arguably the finest actor to grace his films: none other than Max Von Sydow. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you proper Argento!

Sleepless
When a prostitute finds her weird client blurting out that he’s a serial killer, she realises that there are worse things than a ‘john’ who either won’t pay or can’t get it up. But when she stumbles upon some of his incriminating documents, she has no idea that she has just sealed her own fate. Stumbling out into the night, she boards a train for safety, not realising that her trick isn’t engaged in post-coital slumber…

Meanwhile in Turin, young man Giacomo is going about life as anyone else, trying to hold down a job whilst keeping his relationship alive—easy for some, but not him, haunted by memories of seeing his mother bludgeoned to death in front of his eyes as a boy. The investigating detective made a lifetime vow to find the killer, and with train victim matching the MOs’, the hunt is on once again to stem the tide of blood. But when his prey all have links to animals, and a childs’ story might contain answers, things aren’t going to be easy.

What is the nursery-rhyme which seems to echo the killings? Has the infamous ‘Killer-Dwarf’ struck again? Will the retired Detective Moretti finally get his man? But more importantly, can Argento pull off a return to form after the mixture of mediocrity, crap and general disappointment which dogged him for over a decade? Let’s take a look.

Sleepless
Well, if ever there was a way for a master to stamp their return, the opening train sequence is how you do it. The scene is utterly vibrant, with a protagonist you want to come out alive, even though the odds are stacked against her, and is unwilling to waltz into the arms of her pursuer. Rather like his TV story Il Tram, Argento uses every little detail of a piece of public transport to maximum effect. The way our plucky gal hides herself between the carriages of the train is ingenious. The music echoes the speeding wheels of the vehicle, a mirror of events on board as both passenger and train hurtle through the night, their ultimate destinations obscured. This is piece is vintage Argento, letting the faithful know that Sleepless is a return to form.

The central premise of the movie is that of a mysteriously gruesome poem/story about a farmer killing his animals so as to allow him a peaceful nights’ sleep, and Argento makes a superb point about the way the mind can be damaged by such grim tales. When our generation were kids, we had the uncensored versions of The Three Little Pigs, where two of the titular porcines were killed and the wolf boiled alive in a cauldron of oil. Nice, eh? Or how about Little Red Riding Hood, where the woodcutter rips open the wolfs’ stomach to free Granny? Sure, they are pretty disturbing, but it helps kids to deal with the nasty things in life—in the new versions, the three pigs survive and the wolf runs off with a modest burn! Argento cleverly uses the twisted mystique of fairytales to give Sleepless an air unlike his other films.

With the theme of animals being the killers’ way of choosing his victims, and the compulsion to kill takes hold, the slender neck of a swan becomes irresistible—who hasn’t felt the urge to put their hands round the throat of one of those evil gits—let’s see you hiss now, eh? Eh? Oops, too personal. With many people intent on painting Argento as being someone who merely creates beautiful killings, this sequence demonstrates his ability to put together percussive suspense, as our heroes race to save the life of the next beast-based target. We all know that it will end messily, as our Killer attacks the Swan with all the zeal of an Eastern European looking for something tasty to go on their spit. Looking at the actress who plays the Swan, you’d swear that it was originally written for a cameo by Asia.

Sleepless
But there is more than mere spillage of blood for the sake of splattering the camera on display, and a damn good example is when the third victim is about to meet her untimely demise. While most would be distracted by the impending mayhem to be unleashed, it might go past you that she is standing by a number ‘three’ on the wall of the tunnel the killer is stalking her through.

There are instances in Argento’s movies where the body of a victim is violated or disfigured post-mortem, as if to desecrate their spirit. Tenebrae had a face being slashed with a cutthroat razor and Suspiria drove nails into the wrists of the Black Queen’s conquests. Argento manages to surpass himself this time around, and creates a sequence which will have most running for the ‘skip’ button. Is it a bucket of entrails? No, nor anything similar. After offing a poor bint, the killer clips her fingernails. Not much on paper, but when the blood starts flowing as they are cut down to the quick, you’ll be surprised at how common and primal the phobia is. Watch it with someone who has a fear of clippers for the full effect!

This leads us into what really opened viewers’ eyes with Sleepless—the special effects. Il Maestro had given us some spectacular demises in the past, from slo-mo decapitation to a swarm of aggrieved bees doing their worst, and The Stendahl syndrome even took Argento in to the digital age—with middling results. As if to break away from CGI fakery, Sergio Stivaletti makes exceptional use of animatronic work along with the wonder of silicone as substitute skin, and achieves results which are amazingly brutal. While some will pick out a couple of frames where a few of them don’t quite gel, we defy anyone not to wince when the wee ‘kitten’ lassie cops it!

Sleepless
As if to hallmark that Dario has produced his best work in many a summer, Sleepless sees the return to the Argento fold by the superb Gabriele Lavia, the Profondo Rosso veteran and last seen wondering why the lights were flickering during Inferno. The man brings an ice-cool presence as a family man whose wife was murdered, demonstrating just why he outshines thesps half his age.

We have always watched Sleepless in Italian prior to this, and being Italiophiles for a good number of years, the movie highlights when things get lost in translation. For the uninitiated, the original title is Non Ho Sonno, which was very loosely translated for the rest of the world. That the police open the file on the Killer Dwarf case from years before when similar murders start again is lost in the English language. The Italian for dwarf is ‘nano’, very similar to the first half of the Italian title ‘non ho’, which makes more sense when a bloodthirsty Oompa-Loopa is brought into the equation, as well as being a damn funny joke. One of the master-strokes comes through the delicious use of a homonym, which shows Argento to be both sly and playful, a real surprise given that it works perfectly, given how the usage of the Italian word for ‘dwarf’ didn’t translate into languages outside of Italy. We won’t reveal it, but its use in the story is nothing short of inspired.

What sets Sleepless apart from most others in the genre are the presence of a decent amount of quality red herrings and some deft misdirection from Argento. The viewer is kept guessing as to who is on the winning end of the knife, making you suspect only the persons Argento wants you to. There is no ’Scooby Doo’ revelation which makes no sense, with the perpetrator being someone briefly glanced at the side of the frame only in an early scene.

Sleepless
We really can’t say enough about the presence of Max Von Sydow being in the movie, as he is undoubtedly the star of the show. Sure, there have been movies where he has been happy to just turn up and be Max Von Sydow, but this is an occasion where he is perfectly suited to the character he plays. He provides Moretti a cynical air combined with something scratching at his brainstem, which propels him to solve the old case. He is a man of physical limitation, with his heart and body slowly giving out on him, and few actors could be as quietly dignified when proved to be so very right in the face of his prey. In Germany, the name Curt Jurgens is always preceded by the work ‘genial’, and we would lobby that the excellent work by Von Sydow here warrants just the same.

Indeed, it seems that to get the best out of Max Von Sydow, he has to stare death in the face. This can be literally, perhaps over a game of chess, or through the limitations of the body, as we all remember his dickey ticker from The Exorcist. We assume that Argento chose the latter in an homage to cinemas’ finest slice of philosophical blasphemy, as Von Sydow has the same heart condition this time around.

The notion of Sleepless having a killer dwarf might sound like the wet dreams of Ken Russell, but the creepy character of the diminutive Vincenzo gives the (almost) shaky premise a rock-solid credibility and stops the movie going overboard. Who better to take out their inner rage on a society comprised of those genetically predisposed to look down upon you? While Kenny Baker probably harbours the desire to bump-off Anthony Daniels, the entire population would be the target for a dwarf with a very sharp axe to grind. Hell, Vincenzo deserves either a spin-off series or a movie of his own.

Sleepless
If we were forced to throw in a piece of constructive criticism about a movie we really liked, it would be the following: we all know that defenders of Italian horror and even the genre worldwide will argue that the women depicted in movies reflect the times they were made in, Sleepless chops its progressive, feisty females down at the ankles. This comes by way of Clumsy Woman Syndrome—or CWS. The Friday the 13th films have their birds falling over as Jason Voorhees is stalking them through Crystal Lake, and who can forget Fay Wray practically falling into Kong’s grasp? During the famed opening sequence, our gutsy hooker has vital evidence to stop the Killer Dwarf, but—get this—not only does she misplace the folder of suspicion, but manages to spill the contents of her purse whilst trying to avoid certain death. CWS brings wry smiles to the lips of genre fans, anger to the arched eyebrows of feminists and an easy solution to the fingertips of suspense-writers.

With this being not only a return to the past for Argento with the Giallo genre but a return to form after so many disappointing movies, Dario seems to appreciate such matters and crams in a number of references to films past. The good detective Moretti has a parrot who shares his home, but unlike Four Files on Grey Velvet, the feathered creature doesn’t have to endure Bud Spencer naming it ‘Jerk-Off’. From the same film, the protagonist is shot in the arm at a key moment, and another investigator is proved right as they are dispatched by their quarry. We also see the return of evil, demented puppets, which caused so many double-takes in Deep Red.

Sleepless
All fans of Argento are familiar with his ‘animal trilogy’, consisting of Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies of Grey Velvet, but with Sleepless being a return to past glories, it seems only fitting that the victims are all based around certain animals, with one bold step being to have a wee lassie working as a feline dancer in a disco called The Zoo Club. How many of you spotted that the bouncers at said establishment are all wearing yellow jackets, the very essence of giallo? Not to mention that the presence of a bunch of these guys in identical clothes is a tribute to the celebrated sequence with Reggie Nalder in Argento’s debut?

Best of all elements from the past is the glorious reformation of Goblin, with all four members accounted for and contributing pulse-pounding work. Sure, we have all heard stuff purporting to be goblin to distinctly underwhelming effect, with the closest effort to date being Tenebre, but they live and groove again as if to herald the glorious return of Argento the Giallo genre. As bang-on as Argento’s direction is of the opening train-murder, it is the driving beat of Goblin’s score which pushes it into the realms of his best work. It skilfully blends the past with instances of modern techno, underpinning suspense where needed, heightening the brutal murders at other times, but never anything other than utterly appropriate to the material. Hell, there is one instance where their music seamlessly blends in to the sirens of a police car, all without sounding pretentious or arty. Wonderful stuff.

Sleepless
Speaking of references and the past, ever since Demons 3: The Ogre (aka La Casa Dell’Orco) saw a village idiot given the name ‘Dario’ as a sly dig at the maestro, you would have thought that he would have had characters named ‘Lamberto’ and ‘Dardano’ in his films killed off as gruesomely as possible. It certainly isn’t the case here, as Argento uses the same trick to name-check his former associate his mentor, with the character sporting the moniker ‘Leone’, which will need no explanation to anyone who has seen Once Upon a Time in the West. Even Von Sydow got in on the homage act, persuading Argento to have Moretti’s faithful parrot christened ‘Marcello’ in honour of Sr Mastroianni.

Whilst it comes as a disappointment that Sleepless once again comes to the UK in a dubbed version, we’re pleased to report that the process has moved on considerably. We all know that there is a certain charm when the soundtrack is rerecorded—in a lot of cases it’s all part of the charm, and you have to ask English language audiences have had as much for Al Cliver without the familiar voice he was saddled with? But here the replacement dialogue is handled in very impressive manner, and we have only watched No Ho Sonno in Italian until now. There are still a few voices you’ll know from previous dubs, but the quality of the work is really quite impressive. Above all, you get to hear Von Sydow’s original performance, and it’s something which the Italian track is much poorer for losing. On a side note, we did get a childish chuckle when Von Sydow demands to hear ‘Another ‘Werse’ of the gruesome poem as his accent betrays him, putting us in mind of Lugosi in Glen or Glenda… ‘Bevare!’

By now you know that Sleepless is thoroughly entertaining, but how does this DVD present such pretty images and the pulsing re-teaming of Italy’s premiere rock group? Let’s take a look…

Sleepless

Video


This is rightly a revelation for those poor sods who ever sat through the MIA edition of the movie. That previous copy was awful, but Arrow has come up trumps with an edition looking very much like the original Italian release. The (slightly less than) 1.78:1 anamorphic image is more accurately framed, with darker blacks and much less artrfacting than before. We did detect a little noise in the background of some shots, but nothing to spoil things.  In short, it’s a solid job, and very easy on the eye.

Audio


Almost all other copies of Sleepless have the same English-language track, and they are bloody awful. Crap to the point where you would honestly skip the movie and use the disc as a coaster, or as bird-scarers. Arrow gets high praise from us in going to great lengths in order to bring the UK a decent version of Sleepless our native tongue. As we have said before, the quality of the dubbing (cockney bouncers aside) is very good, and forms part of a pulsing soundtrack which really sets the movie alight. Goblin’s score during the train sequence is a crucial example of how important the audio is to create suspense, and is deftly presented here. The directional effects on the discrete 5.1 Dolby Digital track will have you looking over your shoulder, with low frequencies rumbling away with such impressive clout that you’ll have a stupid smile on your face during the movie. There is a 2.0 option for those watching via other means (on a laptop on the way to work, etc) which does a fine job, too. Not much more to ask for.

Extras


Murder, Madness and Mutilation: Sleepless and the Modern Italian Giallo: Newly-created for the DVD is a featurette about the genre, with contributions from Joe Dante, and Sleepless FX man Sergio Stivaletti, this covers the basics for those new to the staples. Origins are covered, the FX of Sleepless are examined and is all presented in a nice package. Oh, and you get contributions from Tony ‘Freddymania’ Timpone.

Sleepless
Making of: This is from the Italian DVD, which is certainly no bad thing, but this time non-Italian speakers get a set of subtitles to accompany it. This is a nice little inclusion, showing Argento and cast at work, but don’t expect any of the simmering hatred bubbling under the surface as was seen whilst making Opera.

Photo Gallery: Once again, we get Arrow’s lovely way of parading nice images from the movie accompanied by the score. It’s a nice way of displaying static photos, and a worthy inclusion.

You also get a CD-ROM copy of the script in English, along with a press-kit, which is are very cool editions, but you’ll have to hunt for them through My Computer to get there.

Overall


Sleepless is a thoroughly entertaining thriller from Dario Argento, a movie which showed that neither age nor a crippled Italian film industry had dulled his edge. The performances (especially from Von Sydow) are excellent, the pace is pulsing, the kills inventive and the twist inspired. Fans for whom it has eluded will be rewarded with a quality release, and have no excuse to snap up this gem from the maestro. Those who just want a damn good thriller will be in for a hell of a night, although be prepared: you’ll be bitten by the Argento bug, but the embrace is sweet.

You know you want it…!


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