“Sleepless” was originally released in 2001 and saw legendary horror director Dario Argento returning to the Giallo form in an attempt to reverse what had seemed for many years to be the irreversible decline of his once glorious career. Perhaps inevitably receiving mixed reactions from critics and fans expecting, or at least hoping for another “Deep Red”, the film is now an interesting candidate for re-evaluation. Arrow Video are offering UK viewers a chance to do just that with this new release, which is part of their Masters of Giallo series, and which comes with new specially commissioned artwork, a short documentary film on the modern Italian Giallo, a featurette on the making of the film, plus the usual trailers and press materials.
The film has Argento working with veteran actor Max Von Sydow (best known to most genre fans as “The Exorcist” himself), who stars as an insomniac detective called Moretti investigating a brutal string of murders in Turin that seem to resemble the past crimes of a notorious killer called ‘The Dwarf’. Convinced that the key may be hidden in his own memories of the previous case, Moretti is helped by the son of one of the original victims, a young man called Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi) who has returned to the city after being away for many years. The two come to believe that the killer is following the Giallo novels written by one of the now deceased prime suspects of the original murders – or indeed that he may not be quite so dead after all.
Although “Sleepless” was touted as Argento returning to his roots, it might more accurately be seen as him going back to the well, as he liberally lifts plot twists and themes from “Deep Red”, “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” and other past hits. This in itself need not be a bad thing, given that the director has been responsible for some of the best example of the Giallo form. However, he seems to have lost his touch over the years, and he fails to string together a mystery that is either coherent or indeed interesting enough to engage the viewer. Most of his trademark narrative elements are present and correct, as he throws in past trauma, animal riddles, creepy children’s rhymes and a subjective reliance upon memory. Unfortunately, as well as seeming over familiar and tired, the story never really gathers much momentum or tension, with its revelations for the most part being clearly telegraphed early on.
To be fair, many of the film’s problems stem from the atrocious English language dubbing, which effectively robs most of the characters of their nuances and depth. This makes them far less interesting than they might have been, and undermines several of the film’s key relationships. Indeed, thanks to some variable accents which simply do not fit the faces on screen, the film at times resembles a hysterical soap opera rather than the psychologically complex drama it might otherwise have been. One exception to this is Von Sydow, who turns in a performance that is clearly well above the level of the rest of the cast and who adds a sense of dignity and class to his scenes – even if he does spend a large amount of the running time talking to his pet parrot.
Thankfully, the film does have somewhat of a saving grace in its visuals, which do see Argento experiencing a return to form of sorts. The opening twenty minutes or so encompassing the first murder scenes are comparable with some of his very best work, being wild and heart pounding. The film does show considerable flair in its camera work and use of colour, and has a certain atmosphere during scenes of Moretti and Giacomo exploring the crumbling old mansion where most of the plot’s silly secrets are hidden. The creative death scenes are certainly brutal and are handled with a definite sadistic glee, often being drawn out and shockingly violent. This helps to keep things entertaining and reasonably lively, and on this score Argento certainly shows that he still knows how to keep genre fans happy.
As a result, “Sleepless” just about manages to earn pass marks as a moderately enjoyable throwback, and this comprehensive re-release is by no means an unwelcome one. However, although any new Giallo by Argento is arguably better than none, it’s hard not to see the film as anything other than a real disappointment from a director who is more than capable of far, far superior work.
Dario Argento (director) / Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini, Carlo Lucarelli (screenplay)
CAST: Max von Sydow … Ulisse Moretti
Stefano Dionisi … Giacomo
Chiara Caselli … Gloria
Roberto Zibetti … Lorenzo
Gabriele Lavia … Dr. Betti
Paolo Maria Scalondro … Chief Inspector Manni
Rossella Falk … Laura de Fabritiis
Roberto Accornero … Fausto
Barbara Lerici … Angela