Nine More Nights of Argento #5 – “Sleepless” (2000)

sleepless6bigLast October, I saw the first nine films directed by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. With the spooky season upon us again, I’ve decided to check out the back-half of Argento’s filmography, from 1990’s George A. Romero team-up Two Evil Eyes to 2012’s notorious flop Dracula 3D.

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More than most Dario Argento films I’ve seen, I knew virtually nothing about Sleepless going in. Coming off of the abhorrent Phantom of the Opera, my expectations were pretty grim. Imagine my surprise when the the film kicks off with one of the most gripping and genuinely terrifying scenes of Argento’s career.

Over the course of ten pulse-pounding minutes, we follow a prostitute on an empty night train. She’s just escaped a close call with a sadistic John when she discovers: 1) she accidentally grabbed a blue file that belonged to her client; 2) the blue folder is filled with photographs and newspaper clippings chronicling nearly 20 years worth of murders that her client committed; 3) the killer is onboard the train with her!

While Argento has clearly been influenced by the thrilling opening scene of Wes Craven‘s Scream, right down to a raspy voiced killer making threats over a cell phone from close proximity to his victim, the scene stands out on its own by succeeding on just about every technical level. Engineered for maximum suspense and featuring the most effective jump scare I’ve seen in ages, for a moment I thought the entire film might be set aboard this terror train, unfolding in real time in what would be a major break from the usual Argento formula. And hell, if it can keep up this level of sheer terror, I’d be all for that!

Unfortunately, the scene ends and the film quickly tapers off into generic Argento territory. Once again we have a killer. Once again we have a host of clueless detectives. And once again, the killer is revealed to be one of the most inept actors in the film, who proceeds to explain everything away in whispery exposition. I know at this point I shouldn’t go into an Argento film expecting any surprises, but to open a film so strongly just to coast back into the same old routine just screams missed opportunity.

Yes, the remaining 110 minutes of the film are a mixed bag. On the plus side, we have the great Max Von Sydow as former police chief Moretti, ushered out of retirement to help investigate the return of the infamous “dwarf killer”, a case that Moretti thought he had closed many years prior. Whether he’s sharing the screen with his parrot sidekick Marcello or one of Marcello’s less charismatic Italian co-stars, Von Sydow is delightful in the role, injecting some much-needed humanity and humor into the film.

Unfortunately, as if alarmed by the presence of a great performance in one of his films, Argento brings in a wooden Stefano Dionisi as Giacomo, a relative of one of the dwarf killer’s past victims. Together, Moretti and Giacomo try to track down the killer while Von Sydow tries his best to get some chemistry going with his boring co-star. If not for that fucking parrot, the great Swedish actor would have literally nobody to play off of during the film’s bloated two-hour run time.

Normally, this would be a strictly two-star affair, but the sublime Von Sydow and that awesome train scene leave me feeling generous.

Next up: THE CARD PLAYER (2004)

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Categories: Dario Argento, Director Spotlight, Features, Reviews

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