Wednesday, November 21, 2012

SLEEPLESS: The Last True Argento Film? [Argento-thon]

Sleepless (2001)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Artisan DVD
Rating: 6.5 / 10

Due to some personal chaos, it's been a while since the last Argento-thon installment. I swear it wasn't the disheartening experience of watching The Phantom of the Opera. But I never start anything I don't intend to finish, and now that I have time on my hands again, let's put on the black gloves and finish this thing off once and for all. Onward, to Sleepless!

Sleepless opens with a quick flashback to Turin in 1983, where Inspector Moretti (played by Max Von Sydow) walks into the scene of a brutal murder where a young boy has watched his mother die. Moretti assures the boy he'll find the killer, even if it takes the rest of his life. Then we're back to the present, in what seems to be an unrelated event, as we watching a hooker from what appears to be the POV of her client. (It's not quite as creepy as it sounds.) When he gets a little too demanding and she finds a collection of knives and newspaper clippings about murder, she decides reasonably enough that it's time to get out.

The next fifteen minutes are just about as pure Argento as you can get. Pursued by the killer, the lady of the night flees onto a train with the man's murder scrapbook in hand as evidence. With a Goblin tune playing in the background (the band breifly reunited around the time of this film) we follow the killer as he stalks his prey through the deserted train. Echoes of Suspiria can be seen in the rain-drenched train station where the girl's friend waits to pick her up. As you might guess, things don't end well. Who's assigned to the case but inspector Moretti, who now begins to wonder if there isn't some connection to the long-buried "dwarf murders" he'd sworn to solve back in 1983. Yes, that's exactly right: dwarf murders. Not the kind where dwarves are murdered, but the kind where there's a killer little person on the loose.

Ignoring the blip that was The Phantom of the Opera, Sleepless continues Argento's shift toward films that are more stylistically grounded than his earlier work. The color palette is more subdued, the kills are less outlandish (although no less brutal), and the plot veers steadily away from psuedo-science and the occult. Moretti's preference for solving things the "old-fashioned" way and his constant railing against technology is also a nice touch. Argento seems to be lamenting the old-fashioned legwork that drove his earlier stories forward, as well as the waning appeal of the slower detective story in the face of flashier, action-driven crime. (He'd cave in and use technology as the central plot device in his next film.)

Crime-fighting buddies
Even so, Sleepless isn't above throwing in lots of fun touches to keep things from getting dull. For example, there are the slightly wacky antics at the police station when the "dwarf murders" casefile is reopened and all the little people in the area are called in for interviews. There's also Moretti's insistence that talking about the case with his parrot is more productive than technology such as DNA testing. Von Sydow reputedly wasn't comfortable speaking aloud to himself as the script initially demanded, and suggested a pet so that the scenes would appear less artificial.

Sydow is definitely a highlight of Sleepless, and is able to carry it through many of its slower parts. If there's one flaw with his performance, it's that he's too good an actor! I've become so accustomed to the below-average dubbing and overacting in older Italian films that Von Sydow seems out of place. Everyone else is thrown into sharp contrast when he's around, and it's a little jarring. Still, having a more relatable character mixed in with the caricatures isn't a bad thing.

I don't know if it was the music, the style, or the poor picture quality of the DVD I had, but I'd never in a million years have guessed this was released in 2001. That said, I'm fine with it. Like Moretti bemoaning the loss of old-fashioned detective work, this film in a way feels like Argento having fun with a lot of his old methods one last time before deciding to move on. It's not as solid or brazenly stylish as his older works, but it's a good revisitation of everything you'd expect in a classic Argento plot.

The Good

Sleepless is a return to form for Argento, and almost feels like a swan song for the giallo. Max Von Sydow brings a level of class and technique that isn't usually present. When it's really firing on all cylinders, it's pretty suspenseful.

The Bad

There's too much downtime. Things definitely could have been tightened up a little, as there are many places near the end where the seams in the writing start to show. Von Sydow also throws everyone else's bad acting into stark contrast against his own.

...the Hell?

Who writes a children's book about a farmer systematically murdering all his farm animals?

The Verdict

Sleepless is worth a watch if you've seen all the classic Argento gialli and want a little more of the same. There's no real new ground broken, but it's a reminder that Dario hadn't completely lost his touch, even this late in his career. I'd use this film to mark the turning point past which Argento really began experimenting (to sometimes disastrous results).

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Hate and Love are One," and I "Love" THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA [Argento-thon]

The Phantom of the Opera (1998)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 3.5 / 10

Oh boy. Any confidence I had after The Stendhal Syndrome that Argento's career was on an upswing was destroyed by this scatterbrained meandering take on Gaston Leroux's oft-revisited tale of doomed love. Whenever a story that's been done this many times is taken on again, something new has to be brought to the table. Argento's unfortunate decision was to change too much - to add too many diversions and flourishes and soak the whole thing in lavish but ultimately empty costumes and set pieces.

Even Asia Argento can't save this one (sorry, honey). Rather than continuing her streak of psychologically damaged heroines, she adopts the role of a young understudy named Christine and constantly tries to keep a straight face while responding to lines like "Your female smell floats through my veins like the melody of the rolling ocean." Oh, I forgot to mention the Phantom himself, Julian Sands (a.k.a. that guy from Warlock) who's responsible for spewing out stinkers like that with unfailing sincerity. The Phantom is the victim of one of Argento's most drastic changes. Here he's not physically disfigured, but a normal-looking guy who's been raised by rats and is somehow telepathic. This essentially removes any mystery to his character as well as making the clandestine nature of his relationship with Christine something of a puzzle. Couldn't he just, you know, leave the rats underground when he's hanging out with her in public?

All in all, a pretty ordinary guy.
There's rarely time to focus on the weird relationship dynamics though, because the story jumps from the Phantom offing operahouse workers who intrude upon his lair, to a ratcatcher who builds a giant riding lawnmower to chop the pests up, to multiple old men creeping on the young dance students, all occasionally interrupted by a dubbed piece of opera. There's also gore. This easily eclipses any previous work of Argento's in sheer bloodiness, and it's a shame that it feels like it's just there to keep you interested in a plot that's perpetually stuck in equilibrium.

That's the main problem I had with this one: there's just insufficient momentum to keep things going. Instead you get a series of bombastic set-pieces and acting that's more suited for The Phantom of the Soap-opera. I could probably spend time putting this into context and look at it in the general trajectory of Argento's career, but I'd rather just let it go and move on.

The Good

This was the largest budget Argento ever had to work with, so at the very least it looks good.

The Bad

The plot wanders. The tone is uneven. It's corny as hell.

...the hell?

The ratcatcher's rat-lawnmower. Seriously?

Also... this:

The Verdict: 

While it might be tempting to check this one out just because it's right at your little Netflix Instant fingertips, you'll be missing very little if you skip it. Some might enjoy the ridiculousness of it all, but it just didn't work in any way for me.

Friday, November 2, 2012

GIVEAWAY: This Book Is Full of Spiders, by David Wong

John Dies at the End is one of the funniest horror novels (or novels, period) I've read in a long time, and I'm really looking forward to checking out the Don Coscarelli-helmed film adaptation when it gets a widespread release.

In the meantime, the sequel, This Book Is Full of Spiders, was released last month, and I happen to have come across an extra copy! Since none of my real friends read horror (or I'm an internet recluse without any RL friends - take your pick) I'd like to give it away to one of you.

If you're interested, either leave a comment or shoot me an email at and recommend a good horror novel to me (don't worry about whether I've read it or not). That's it, just do it before Nov. 16. And if you do feel inclined to follow the site through blogger, or throw it into your RSS reader, hey, I won't stop you.

I'll pick someone at random to send the book to - and since I do science in real life, you can assure it'll be completely random (or at least psuedorandom). No need to include an address or any of that. I'll bug you for it if you win. I'm not trying to creep on anyone here. Just be a resident of the U.S. (I can't afford international shipping) and please, no P.O. Boxes.

Let's be honest. Your chances are pretty good if you're interested. There aren't a ton of people who read this site. But I appreciate you all that do, so thanks.