I can’t sleep… …so I penned a love letter to Dario Argento’s Sleepless

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Appreciation of a film is very subjective, not just to personal resonance, the period of our lives in which we watch it and taste but also the wider context in terms of genre and technical competence. All or some of these elements may combine leaving us with both our personal impression and the wider accepted view. However it may also mean that we love films that perhaps we shouldn’t and dismiss films that maybe require reappraisal. 

In regards to the giallo genre one such film that I believe falls into the latter for many is SLEEPLESS aka Non Ho Sonno by Dario Argento.

No introduction is needed for this director or the impact that he has had not just on Italian horror but the wider genre overall and frequently when his name is mentioned amongst fans be it at a festival, in the pub or on a cult internet forum, the debate of what constitutes his last great film is raised.

For some it is TENEBRAE, for others it ended with OPERA although I have also seen cases made for THE STENDHAL SYNDROME and even DRACULA 3D….ok maybe that last one was a joke, in more ways that one. But for me it is unequivocally SLEEPLESS.

In fact I propose that SLEEPLESS is not only his best work in the last three decades but also represents the very best of all post-nineties gialli. Not because it is a Dario Argento film but because it is one of the very few that actually adheres to the tropes of the genre, incorporating them into a working narrative whilst simultaneously managing to engage with the audience.

Now let’s be clear I am not against innovation or adaption of the genre rules, the giallo genre throughout its history is rife with appropriation and adaption having gone through several cycles, adapting itself to the requirements and preferences of audiences at any given time from Hitchcockian and Agatha Christie murder mysteries, to the psychological or the psycho-sexual and then the straight-out erotic by way of the occult and supernatural, although not necessarily all in that order.

So films such as SYMPHONY IN BLOOD RED from Luigi Pastore, FRANCESCA from Luciano Onetti not to mention AMER from Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani and THE TRANSPARENT WOMAN from Domiziano Cristopharo all have their merits but it is the likes of  ALMOST BLUE from Alex Infrascelli and EYES OF CRYSTAL from Eros Puglielli that sit alongside SLEEPLESS in that they are the most true to the genre, although a special mention has to go to Sergio Martino for the disappointing TV movie MOZART IS A MURDERER (1999) that also attempted to fit into the more traditional genre style.

However while ALMOST BLUE and EYES OF CRYSTAL provide a decent watch, they both fall by the wayside when talking about actual giallo, as we would understand it as opposed to the wider Italian interpretation of the genre – with one element of where we differ in terms of the mystery genre being the deployment of a professional detective.

Additionally, ALMOST BLUE  and EYES OF CRYSTAL are both based on novels, therefore they are constrained further due to having to remain true, to an extent, to the source material. While SLEEPLESS, although co-written by a novelist (Carlo Lucarelli) was free to be written purely for the screen – and as a result is better able to visually mimic the giallo film formula, with mimic being a key term.

It is at this point that I may lose the support of some of you, have I made a contentious claim here? Going back to my opening thought, it is clear that how we interpret the genre and how we define also shapes our arguments and our preferences.

For me, a black gloved killer, POV shots and plot absurdity, to some level at least, reign supreme as a staple of the genre. That is why I feel assured and certain in my argument that SLEEPLESS is not only the last quality film made by Dario Argento but also the best giallo of the last three decades.

But why do I rate this film so much and why should you check it out or give it another go?

Coming three years after the misguided attempt that was THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998), fan expectation was low and with good reason as Dario Argento had spent years proclaiming that he did not want to finish his ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy – he would – or make another DEPP RED just because of fan pressure and that he would rather indulge in his own creative interests. 

However for one reason or another he returned to the genre he made his own and whether he committed fully to the project or not, the brief footage in ‘The Making of Sleepless’ extra from Arrow Video’s UK DVD release certainly makes it seem like he had a change of heart, the end result is an energetic and authentic giallo that throws as much on the screen as it can.

Opening immediately with an upbeat killer theme tune, courtesy of Goblin in their first collaboration with the director since PHENOMENA, we witness retrospectively a scene set in Torino at some point during March, 1983 where a young boy named Giacomo is being consoled by Police Inspector Moretti after the brutal killing of his mother.

Jumping to modern day Turin, a prostitute is having trouble with her client but after the offer of additional payment she suddenly becomes a little more amenable to whatever perverse demands were put to her. Once her sadomasochistic customer falls asleep our luckless prostitute attempts to leave only to overhear sleep-talking about killing lots of people. Panicking she rushes to leave, knocking into a small cabinet and sending its contents along with that of her bag flying everywhere. Now a mixture of files, press cuttings and make up not to mention a kill kit lay strewn across the floor and in her rush to leave she hastily grabs her items and leaves. Taking with her a key piece of evidence and starting an exhilarating and brutal chase sequence complete with ramped-up tension, POV shots and of course excessive violence and blood.

A blistering twenty minutes opens this film and putting any implausibility aside, admittedly you might have to, it is highly satisfying to finally get a film that plays out like the genre of old.

Sleepless by Dario Argento

As the film progresses events lead a couple of investigating officers back to what was known as the ‘Dwarf killer’, a case that was investigated and solved by our old friend Moretti back in the early eighties. 

Now that this old case is awoken so is the murderer’s intent, with the ferocity and frequency that a slasher film would be proud of. Off-camera it is at the point of the films third murder that something rather strange for a Dario Argento film occurs – the gloved hands of the killer are not those of the iconic director but rather another crew member. The reason for this was simple, as stated to Almar Haflidason in an interview with the BBC, it was simply because the “gloves were too big” for his hands. With something as mundane as this a Dario Argento directorial tradition was broken.

The opening act of the film coming to a close we see a now grown-up Giacomo thrown back into the mix, along with a brutal alternative flashback of the films opening scene, completing our back-story while driving the narrative forwards as an entertaining modern amateur investigation links the past and the present almost like a play off Dario Argento’s greatest hits including a killer dwarf (a la Deep Red), fiction influencing reality (a la Tenebrae) and much more across displaying wider genre influence and history.

Constantly straddling the line between parody and authenticity SLEEPLESS takes an almost frantic, kitchen sink approach but the tight pacing, intriguing mystery and clever, if sometimes convenient, plot devices keep it ticking over as the writers leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the investigating characters (and viewers) to follow with twists, turns and red herrings at each and every step of the way and as we slowly understand more we find ourselves engrossed in this violent mystery.

In regards to the success of the scripting we must be careful giving Dario Argento all of the credit or perhaps even the lions share as alongside him was semi-frequent collaborator Franco Ferrini (EYES OF CRYSTAL; PHENOMENA; OPERA; THE CARD PLAYER) and, I would propose more importantly, crime television celebrity and author Carlo Lucarelli (writer of the novel Almost Blue) who is also credited with contributing to the story. Although his exact involvement is unconfirmed the fact remains that SLEEPLESS is above and beyond the films of Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini both immediately before and everything after , so the only difference in this respect being Carlo Lucarelli.  

But whatever the reason and all speculation aside every aspect of SLEEPLESS works, from the pacing and (preposterous) story to the Goblin score all the way to the excellent special effects which beautifully highlight the art of violence that Dario Argento is best known for. 

Sergio Stivaletti (DEMONS; OPERA; DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE) has to receive the credit here as he does exceptionally well on a limited budget, never hiding the gore as he displays these not only extremely bloody but also inventive pieces of work as fingers are chopped, teeth smashed and heads exploded.

Although we must accept that this is still a modern day Dario Argento movie and for all the positives there are still a few areas in which the director misses the mark for one reason or another. One such example is the cinematography which is functional at best and admittedly lacking that extra bit of flair that was prevalent in his seventies output but perhaps more seriously there is a moment which cannot be simply chalked down to cultural or historical attitudes as one might do with some of the characters or scenes from his early to mid seventies output.

This is the insensitive choice of comical, almost circus-like music for the scene in which the police round up the city’s dwarves. This particular scene comes across as ill-judged at best. Meanwhile others may criticise the films over-the-top adoption of the genres tropes which at times leave the film open to being a pastiche of Dario Argento’s work rather than actually being from the director himself. Conversely this might also be to the films benefits in regards to the entertainment stakes.

Ultimately I can admit that SLEEPLESS is riddled with plot holes and conveniences, it panders to the needs of the giallo fan and can be seen as a souped-up TV movie, but what separates it from being another MOZART IS A MURDERER are these very same points.

The film counters any story issues with strong pacing…and violence, so sure it does pander to the needs of the giallo fan but is that such a bad thing when it is being delivered by someone with the credibility and validity of Dario Argento? 

Meanwhile the casting and performance of Max Von Sydow (THE SEVENTH SEAL; THE EXORCIST) lends the film a certain level of gravitas unreachable by many other films produced around the same time or the straight to TV produced gialli. Not to mention strong turns by Gabriele Lavia (DEEP RED) and Rossella Falk (BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA; SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS) giving the film yet another link to the past.

The giallo genre’s decline is well document and the new breed producing this cinematic art form have moved on, evolved if you will, that much is clear but every now and then is it so bad to want something modern that does more than just pay a slight visual or audio homage to the past? 

I say no and for those very moments SLEEPLESS is there. So if you are yet to see it or if you have only seen it the once I recommend you give it another go.

HOUSE OF SALEM (2016) BY JAMES CROW

Reviews

Year: 2016
Director: James Crow
Writer: James Crow
Starring: Andrew Lee Potts, Jessica Arterton, Jack Brett Anderson, Liam Kelly, Leslie Mills, Dean Maskell, Anna Nightingale, Nalân Burgess

Synopsis:
A group of kidnappers become a child’s unlikely protectors after discovering they have unwittingly been set up to take part in a satanic ritual. As they begin to uncover the truth of the house they find themselves trapped, they must battle demonic forces and uncover a legacy of over a hundred years of murder in the name of the Devil

Review:
Coming from experienced short film British writer/director James Crow, HOUSE OF SALEM represents his sophomore feature effort and continues with the rough theme of the occult which could be seen in his debut CURSE OF THE WITCHING TREE.

The film opens in familiar horror territory; a beautiful babysitter (Nalân Burgess) and a young child who clearly has either suffered some early trauma or has some mystery in his past. It is never just a normal kid perhaps with a tough paper round.

Early on we learn that the child, Josh, suffers from nightmares if he does not take his pill and rather unsurprisingly he deceives his babysitter into believing he has taken these bringers of peaceful sleep. Now this action also serves another purpose as we, the viewer, are thrown into uncertainty about whether what we are about to view is real or all in Josh’s head.

Whichever is the case it does not matter and we are not given the time to overthink for very quickly an armed gang, dressed in scary clown masks infiltrate the house and kidnap the boy leaving the babysitter unconscious on the floor. 

After being taken to an isolated rural estate house, Josh starts to hear voices, but not only ones that want to protect him but ones that do not have his best interests at heart. At this point the film slowly develops more supernatural overtones and what was only hinted at before begins to dominate the proceedings as the waking nightmare becomes more vivid. These moments are more than competently handled aiding the unsettling possibilities of both the house and those behind orchestrating the kidnapping. 

Objectively speaking however the opening act is a little slow for my tastes and suffers from inconsistency in terms of quality which reduces the impact and arguably the interest of what has the potential to be an engaging slow burning occult mystery.

Thankfully however by the second act the script begins to find its rhythm as more breadcrumbs are laid and engagement generated in regards to the real mystery behind the safehouse that the gang find themselves holed up in at the request of an unknown client.

Soon all around the property a mysterious symbol begins to appear with increased frequency as do the hallucinations of not only Josh but also those who took him. During this middle act HOUSE OF SALEM really hits its stride managing to create some genuine moments of tension and intrigue but unfortunately the film seems unable to capitalise on this resulting in a final act that was executed perhaps not as well as it could or should have been.

As with many low budget films the locations are limited and although not directly, HOUSE OF SALEM is comparable to that of a siege movie, Perhaps think in terms of the hospital in the terrific American film THE VOID, although much less expansive and a much lower budget. 

One aspect of this almost siege like environment is that it places by emphasis on the acting, simply by default more than anything. This is both a strength and weakness of HOUSE OF SALEM as the few moments of action are unfortunately weak while the acting, which takes precedence is a little inconsistent although Jessica Arterton, Leslie Mills and Dean Maskell put in commendable performances while Liam Kelly in his first credited role as the boy Josh makes a strong start to his acting career.

Despite its promise HOUSE OF SALEM is unfortunately neither claustrophobic or brave enough in its depiction, I am talking both in terms of script and visuals, resulting in an inconsistent movie in which moments of inane and weak dialogue are followed by genuine tension. The pieces for success are all there and James Crow clearly knows his stuff leading me to suspect that these lulls and moments of inconsistency are down more to the transition from short to feature length production.

HOUSE OF SALEM is one of those small independent films that hovers around in distribution limbo for a couple of years after being made, before finally being granted a long overdue release. Thankfully though it manages to avoid being dated or missing a trend and so this delay has not or should not affect its release.

Overall there is still enough to recommend about this sometimes effectively tense movie to make it worth your while picking it up  but if you are looking for an independent occult horror film might I recommend the Italian films CUSTODES BESTIAE by Lorenzo Bianchini or SHANDA’S RIVER by Marco Rosson ahead of this one.

HOUSE OF SALEM is receiving a home entertainment (DVD) and digital release courtesy of Left Films and Wild Eye Releasing coming October 1st 2018 if you are interested.

FORMULA FOR A MURDER (1985) BY ALBERTO DI MARTINO

Reviews

Alternative Titles: 7, Hyden Park: la casa maledetta; Formula per un assassinio; Das Haus der Verfluchten; Formule pour un meurtre
Director: Alberto De Martino (as Martin Herbert)
Writers: Alberto De Martino, Vincenzo Mannino
Year: 1985
Starring: David Warbeck, Christina Nagy, Carroll Blumenberg, Rossano Brazzi, Loris Loddi

Synopsis:
Joanna, who is wheelchair-bound after a horrific childhood attack, is a philanthropist who has funded a sports centre for paraplegics. She now plans to donate a large part of her wealth to the local church, but visions of a priest-looking figure carrying a blood-soaked doll start to haunt her…and whilst the apparitions seem to stem from Joanna’s traumatized psyche, they soon become horribly real! [Taken from the Shameless 2014 DVD release]

Review:
Opening with an almost dreamlike quality we witness a priest suspiciously approaching a young girl before throwing her doll away, perhaps symbolising the loss of childhood that is about to occur. Jump twenty-five years into the future and now grown up the young girl Joanna (Christina Nagy) is a paraplegic and keen archer, who is also romantically involved with her sports coach Craig (David Warbeck).

While this opening act provides us with some exposition and helps to frame the context in which the film will build on, such as Joanna’s precarious health; her relationship with best friend Ruth and the whirlwind romance with Craig, it is functional at best. The opening thirty minutes plod along barely managing to hold your attention and when the first act of real violence finally wakes us director De Martino does not take long to reveal the killer leaving the only mystery remaining being the motive. However even that doesn’t last long as we witness a tale of betrayal and greed that would be at home in any classic anthology horror movie.

Despite these pacing issues and a simplistic plot the script actually contains a few nicely written pieces of dialogue and a couple of moments of genuine quality as Warbeck plays psychological mind games in a bid to induce his sinister motives. Not to mention the possibility fans have to discuss the empowerment Craig feels when dressed up, seemingly changing both his manner and confidence. Although whether this was a premeditated decision by the film makers, Warbeck’s own contribution or simply pure luck we will sadly never know.

Now as stated the plot is a bit simplistic, especially for a mystery-thriller, and in a bid to throw a bit more complexity into the mix we have the additional character of Ruth. It transpires that Ruth is from the same city as Craig and is as equally cold-hearted and calculating as her City-mate. Although Joanna herself has a few surprises as well just to keep things interesting as the story eventually picks up in the final third with one scene in particular reminiscent of TORSO and many slashers of the period. If there was one criticism of the finale however it is almost regrettable to say but the sight of Joanna escaping from her would be killer slowly in a motorised wheelchair is almost comical and borderline implausible but thankfully De Martino has an answer for that and saves the day.

Credit has to go to the cast for making a hum drum affair just that bit better, with Warbeck in particular showing just why for a while he was so highly regarded before dropping into B-Movie obscurity. It is also surprising that the attractive and competent actress Carroll Blumenberg never went on to have a career in acting.

Sadly though FORMULA FOR A MURDER is just a bit bland for the most part and the slow build of the first act seeks sadly is not justified by the admittedly strong final act. Essentially FORMULA FOR A MURDER plays more like a TV movie, which perhaps says something about the state of the industry at the time. Those looking for a convoluted giallo won’t get it and there perhaps isn’t enough brutal violence to sate the fans of the more hardcore late eighties Italian output. That said if you can find it cheap enough, and often you can get some Shameless DVDs for just £3 it may be worth picking up as a curiosity.

Those with a keen ear might also pick up on a few seemingly familiar tunes within the soundtrack. The music was composed by Francesco De Masi, who might be a familiar name to fans of NAPOLI SPARA!, THE NEW YORK RIPPER and ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX. 

In fact those who are fans of Lucio Fulci’s misanthropic New York tale are certain to recognise the similarities between that films theme and one utilised in this movie while in the city. It is fair to say that it not so much informs it but rather is the basis of it. Unfortunately for De Masi his attempts to tweak what he had previously done fail to impress leading me to suspect that this was just a payday for the man but thankfully the score picks up and is quite strong on the whole.

Overall this film is perhaps more suited to being a short film in a collection and if you want to check out a superior tale of greed and betrayal (and is another one where you know who the killer is to boot) then I suggest checking out Luigi Cozzi’s THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN.

Version Reviewed:
I reviewed the 2014 Shameless DVD release which does look and sound fantastic. It comes with an anecdotal audio commentary from the Director of Photography Gianlorenzo Battaglia which is essentially a Q&A interview combined with his recollections of the filming as it plays. That is if Gianlorenzo actually remembers anything about this film as he goes on to say he has worked on a lot of films (including some fantastic ones like DEMONS) so couldn’t possibly remember much about each film, for example he doesn’t remember David Warbeck and keeps providing confusing and conflicting information on where scenes were shot. I guess he was the only person available at the time.

As well as the standard Shameless extras of a theatrical trailer and showcase real. Where Shameless have improved on their initial offering (and of course it greatly depends on the materials available) is in the inclusion of both English and Italian audio with English subtitles where required. Finally if you are or were lucky enough to pick this up new you would also receive a Shameless yellow mac, not the same as that worn by Warbeck but just as snazzy so when you need a light rain poncho you can be as sleazy as you want.

Finally be warned however the cover for the Shameless release does indicate somewhat about the actions of one of the characters but considering the film is over twenty years old we can forgive them for that.

The Devil of Kreuzberg (2015) BY Alexander Bakshaev

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Ein Schoener Film
Director: Alexander Bakshaev
Writer: Pippo Schund
Year: 2015
Starring: Sandra Bourdonnec, Suleyman Yuceer, Sofia Velasquez, Naiden Angelov.

Synopsis:
Linda and Jakob are happily in love until one night Jakob begins to have horrific nightmares in which Linda appears as a darkly seductive creature. Tormented by these visions, Jakob asks his best friend Kurt to murder Linda for him, thus beginning a slow descent into madness. Unbeknownst to the two men, Linda is acting under the control of an ancient family curse. Will her love for Jakob overcome the powers of death? Will Kurt give in to his violent urges and kill to protect his friendship? Is there a way to escape the Devil of Kreuzberg?

Review:
Upon first impression THE DEVIL OF KREUZBERG can be perceived as discordant and perhaps even unsure of what it wants to be but after repeated viewings the power of the film begins to shine through providing a very rewarding experience for those who are patient while helping to ensure that the film stands the test of time.

This is because the film works on multiple levels – from the subtle and sensory to the direct and grindhouse-esque. While a special mention also has to go to the varied and tremendous soundtrack which changes between the jazz of the 70s gialli and a more electronic score reminiscent at times of Angelo Badalamenti mixed with Goblin.  While in regards to the acting, as you would expect from a low budget indie film it does vary although overall the vast majority of the cast put in promising performances with Suleyman Yuceer as the worlds most depressed hitman Kurt putting in a particularly noteworthy performance.

And despite the dialogue itself being merely functional and at times quite forced this does not prove to be an issue thanks to a story that is both intriguing and strong enough to carry the film, which at its heart is about need. Here the screenwriter does excel as they juxtapose the need of Jakob with that of his on-off girlfriend Linda, who herself  is battling an inner conflict as she tries to repress who she is and what she must do and this sets up a very interesting story dynamic making the viewer question the very concept of love and its actions.

In order to do this director Bakshaev leans on the neo-giallo approach of Cattet and Forzani (AMER, THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS) as well as even David Lynch (TWIN PEAKS, BLUE VELVET) and presents the narrative through a combination of sleazy realism and more tonal surrealism and it is to his great credit (and that of the cinematographer) the beauty of some of the shots achieved on this budget.

Dancing scenes aside THE DEVIL OF KREUZBERG is discordant, surreal and gritty but with that it is also rewarding as it manages to take it’s influences (including the Hammer horror films) and mould them into something original with the ambiguity between the psychological and supernatural used with great effect. 

Apparently costing only £3,000 the film deserves praise for trying something new, thinking out of the box and on the whole delivering, all while marking out director Alexander Bakshaev one to look out for, especially if he gets to operate with a bigger budget.

Version Reviewed:
We reviewed an online screener version of the film. However a limited edition DVD-R of the film can be purchased from Carnie Films.

Please note that although the IMDB lists the runtime as 65m we watched and reviewed a shorter version with a running time of 48m 34seconds. It is unknown what version of film exists in this longer cut.

On the road to hell

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The Italian film industry appears to be on something of an upward trajectory, after years of decline followed by mediocrity things finally seem to be happening both in terms of quantity and quality being received and seen beyond its home country.  While the likes of Paolo Sorrentino and Luca Guadagnino are the current darlings of the critics and are surely recognised by film fans across the globe, there are many more directors that you should be aware of and today I want to talk to you about one who is a rising star of the independent film scene and new generation of film makers – Roberto D’Antona.

Often the restrictions of operating within the fringes of the industry necessitate the taking on of several guises and Roberto D’Antona is no exception as he is often seen both behind the camera (as a writer and a director) and in front of it (in a lead or supporting role) for his films, and in fact may already be recognisable to many of you thanks to his role as ‘Condom’ in his brothers violent crime comedy 2015 film INSANE, but perhaps most likely for his involvement in the recent Tv series THE REAPING or the feature length film THE WICKED GIFT,  both of which he starred, wrote and directed. So it is no surprise that his latest film FINO ALL’INFERNO aka ROAD TO HELL is no exception.

The international trailer for ROAD TO HELL has just been released and it looks like it could be one of the best Italian genre releases in years. In the film three robbers, fresh from committing a crime, cross paths with a seemingly cursed woman and her son, all while a mob boss and a secretive organisation give chase in what looks to be an insane and ever escalating violent situation.

Judging by the trailer, whatever you want from a contemporary Italian genre piece is in here and I am hoping that it turns out to be be the stylish, batshit crazy violent Italian genre modern classic that we have all been waiting for.

Additionally I have never heard the word “cazzo” said so much in such a short space of time.

Check out the trailer below and follow the film over on Facebook.