Putting aside the visceral horror and supernatural chills that have been his trademark for more than 20 years, Dario Argento returns to the style and setting of his early thrillers with “Sleepless.” Loyal fans of the Italian frightmeister’s vintage work will find nostalgia value in this bloodbath orchestrated by a serial killer who takes his cue from a macabre nursery rhyme. But despite some memorable sequences, the film’s often clumsy plot elaboration and uneven cast make it more likely to measure up on video than in theaters. Dubbed Italian version released domestically earlier this year delivered solid results, outperforming recent Argento titles.
Prior to churning out horror frenzies like “Suspiria,” “Inferno” and “Opera,” which attracted an international following, Argento was best known for gruesome murder mysteries like “Cat o’ Nine Tails,” “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” and “Deep Red.” Set like those earlier entries in the somber northern Italian burg of Turin, the new film exhibits many of the same strengths, such as striking execution of action setpieces, and weaknesses, like improbable dialogue, logistically shaky plot and seeming disregard for performance quality.
Argento’s films frequently open with head-turning sequences and this one is no exception. Following a brief 1983 prologue in which a young boy witnesses his mother’s brutal murder by an unseen killer, the action shifts to present-day Turin, where a spooked hooker (Barbara Lerici) is extricating herself from a sticky situation with a sadistic john. Inadvertently making off with the customer’s sinister scrapbook of murder confessions, she is followed by him onto a night train, giving way to 18 minutes of rapid-fire editing and bravura camerawork covering a chase up and down the deserted cars that culminates in slice-and-dice carnage.
His appetite whetted, the killer gets busy with a fresh spree, mimicking a series of murders from the ’80s. Lured out of retirement, the sleuth in charge of that earlier investigation is insomniac Ulisse Moretti (Max Von Sydow), whose failing memory is jogged by clues left beside each corpse.
The killings also stir buried memories for troubled young Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), whose mother was the victim seen bludgeoned to death in the prologue.
Punctuated by plenty of the messy gore moments beloved by Argento fans, the plot makes use of an ably constructed red herring concerning a dwarf taunted by Giacomo and his friends as kids. But even though the movie keeps some surprises up its sleeve, the suspense is more fitful than sustained. The story seems too cluttered with superfluous characters and ponderous details where cleaner narrative lines and a more taut structure could have cranked up the tension.
By today’s slick slasher standards, “Sleepless” plays like an amusing anachronism. Some wooden acting and underdeveloped characters don’t help. Von Sydow’s effortless professionalism casts an unflattering light on the young central trio of Dionisi, Chiara Caselli and Roberto Zibetti, the latter two as Giacomo’s harp-playing former flame and his childhood buddy.
As for the scream queens that meet a bloody end, none of them look likely to be summoned for a Wes Craven casting call anytime soon. Grab-bag of accents from both sides of the Atlantic — many of them dubbed in the English version — seems incongruous in the Italian setting.
Collaborating with the director again after a long pause, fright-rock group Goblin, which scored several Argento classics, contributes an energized soundtrack and d.p. Ronnie Taylor supplies some panicky tracking sequences. The sing-song nursery rhyme that inspires the killer, about a farmer butchering his barnyard animals, was written by the director’s daughter, actress Asia Argento.