Max von Sydow
Paolo Maria Scalondro
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9th Jun 09
An ex-police chief comes out of retirement to solve a 17-year-old case when it appears that the same killer is at large once again.
Considering Dario Argento's tradition of concentrating on just about every other factor of the filmmaking craft at the expense of the acting, it's truly special to see Max von Sydow's name in the Sleepless credits. This must be because von Sydow simply doesn't know how turn in a substandard performance. Not even in post-synced Italian horror movies.
Argento's return to the genre with which made his name sees retired, ailing police chief Ulisse Moretti (von Sydow) return to his vocation in an effort to solve a 17-year-old murder case in Turin. Helping him is young Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), who as a child witnessed his mother's face being brutally smashed to death with an unconventional weapon - an English Horn - at the hands of 'The Killer Dwarf'. But the supposedly deceased diminutive killer appears to be on the loose once again, and has picked up where he left off 17 years ago, by slaying a selection of the city's women.
Don't you just love the old 'retired cop back on the scene' cliche? He was the best in the business, they say, so the younger cops don't mind him poking his nose in too much. And it goes without saying that he dislikes any modern technology, instead relying on old school techniques, and pacing around his apartment, piecing clues together, as opposed to dabbling with that dreaded interweb. And this is Max von Sydow we're talking about here, remember, which means every frame of his clue-searching monologues is a total pleasure to experience. He is the Exorcist. He is Ming the Merciless. He is Jesus Christ. We are not worthy, but maybe Argento is.
Alas, such praises cannot be sung for the rest of the cast, which can be a real weakness of Argento’s. Stefano Dionisi as young Giuacomo is wetter than the Atlantic, as his asthmatic friend, Lorenzo. This is partly down to the type of characteristically dodgy dubbing us purveyors of Italian horror are all too accustomed to, but the voices are sometimes so awful that yours truly was convinced they were being portrayed as gay (not being homophobic here, folks - if they were gay it would have messed with the story line!). It's great however to see Argento veteran Gabriele Lavia (Inferno, Deep Red) back as Lorenzo's stuck-up father. This guy oozes charisma in every scene - surely the only other actor in the cast worthy to share the stage with von Sydow.
This being a modern giallo, and an Argento one at that, there are some truly fantastic set-pieces to get stuck into, and you gorehounds out there are sure to get your fix from the sadistic handiwork of special effects maestro (and Argento regular) Sergio Stivaletti. Even the most impatient viewer will revel in the suspended tension of the first sequence, involving a prostitute being stalked on a moving train late at night – a superbly staged sequence to let you know that Argento is back as the giallo master. He's got the black gloves on and he means business. This is merely a teaser of what is yet to come in this great giallo.
While the violently beautiful bloodletting scenes tick certain required boxes, then the same can be said for the story here. The premise of a dwarf killer on the loose is suitably creepy, and Argento succumbs to the temptation of incorporating a macabre nursery rhyme into the proceedings, just for added shivers. This is no surprise coming from a director seemingly at ease using a child-related imagery and themes in a darker context. Also in place is the music hall aesthetic, recalling Opera and Phantom of the Opera, not to mention the general obsession with the musical environment (Suspiria, Inferno, Four Flies on Grey Velvet). Sleepless deftly marries these well-worn, consistent trappings with his more recent approach to desaturated photography (instead going for more naturalistic representations), and of course his increasing tendency for what he likes to call ‘the dirty’.
As this is Argento in giallo territory, it’s only fitting that he should look to none other than Goblin to provide the score, which, like Argento’s own style, blends the old and the new. So expect creepy plinkety-plonk passages and ominous bass, combined with power rock stylings, which would have been more acceptable for a horror soundtrack in the late 80’s rather than 2001. The score does tend to date the movie more than it deserves, but remains effective.
If Argento manages to transcend Sleepless with his current project, Giallo, then we’re in for a treat (although advance rumours to the contrary abound). While this may not be up there with Deep Red or Suspiria, it remains a surprisingly inventive effort which remains true to its origins while successfully packing in some great nastiness, a tight plot, and the one and only Max von Sydow.
DVD extras include Murder and Madness: Sleepless and the Modern Italian Giallo, comprising interviews from giallo fans Joe Dante Fangoria’s Anthony Timpone, as well as a cool ‘Making of’ featurette.