*/**** Image D Sound D
starring Max von Sydow, Stefano Dionisi, Chiara Caselli, Gabriele Lavia
screenplay by Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini, Carlo Lucarelli
directed by Dario Argento
by Walter Chaw Italian horror master Dario Argento's desperation for a critical or popular success is starting to manifest itself in self-imitation and sloppiness. Fourteen years removed from his last good movie (Opera), his latest film Sleepless (a.k.a. Non ho sonno), starring the inimitable Max Von Sydow and heralded as a return to Argento's roots in the giallo genre, hits North American shores months after bootleg copies of it have already circulated amongst the ranks of disappointed fanboys. Sleepless lacks the savant-level spark of invention that elevates Argento's best films (Deep Red, Suspiria, Tenebre) and the flashes of brilliance that indicate his second-tier of work (Phenomena, Opera, Inferno). It is listless and painful, with fakey gore and dialogue that reaches nadir even for an auteur never known for his pen.
Called out of retirement to investigate what appears to be the resumption of an old unsolved serial murder case, Commissario Ulisse Moretti (von Sydow), stricken by insomnia, discovers the key to the murders in a child's nursery rhyme. Sleepless is, at its heart, a redux of Deep Red, complete with childhood flashbacks, an evil puppet, and a haunting children's tune. Paired with young Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), the witness as a child to his mother's murder at the hands of the mysterious "dwarf killer," Ulisse uses his unconventional methods (see The Cat o' Nine Tails) to divine the identity of the bad guy. A shame the identity of the bad guy is never really in doubt and that he's played by an actor so appalling I actually started to like him in a vintage campy "Batman" kind of way.
Where the giallo (meaning "yellow," after the colour of popular Italian pulp novel covers) genre depends upon a tangled murder mystery and elaborately-staged death scenes, Sleepless' mystery is rote and its death scenes ritual. There's nothing here to compare with the steamed window of Deep Red or the expressionist splash of crimson from an amputated arm in Tenebre; rather, Sleepless has as its gore centrepiece an exploding head, which Argento already carried with greater success in Opera, and a death by clarinet so badly done that it's hard to believe this is the Dario Argento.
The performances (save von Sydow's) are abominable and the screenplay does absolutely nothing to help their embarrassed foundering. I've honestly seen better turns in community theatre, and by "better" I mean "there's really no comparison." The entire exercise is a heartrending one, particularly for fans of the horror auteur who held hopes that Sleepless would return Argento to form, but even Goblin's score plumbs the depths during a dwarf interrogation sequence, when their trademark electronic blips take on the uneasy form of a whimsically insulting calliope. Done by anyone else, Sleepless would play as a cynical attempt to cash in on the success of one of the great splatter artists of all time. Done by Argento himself, it's just kinda pathetic. For a look at the future of euro-horror, seek out Frenchman Lionel Delplanque's fantastic Promenons-nous dans les bois (Deep in the Woods).
As released by Artisan on DVD, Sleepless not only doesn't look as good as the film's black-market VHS dupe, it's been butchered by about ten minutes, comes in an awful cropped presentation, and is free from all but the most arbitrary special features--a far cry from Anchor Bay's landmark efforts to preserve and honour Argento's library. The print looks awful, with speckles and lines marring nearly every scene and some of the shots appearing to be mismatched (though I wouldn't necessarily blame the transfer for that). Its reds are dull and by the first chapter break it had me reaching for my third generation VHS bootleg, which was in spotless 1.85:1 widescreen. Maybe Artisan would like to borrow it. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio is equally poor: the (dubbed) dialogue sounds tinny, the sound effects exist in different environments, and an early scene involving a train has the sound cut off in the right, jump to the left, and return several times within the space of a few moments. It's disorienting, to be sure, and I suspect not in the way intended. Cast and crew filmographies, four previews for other Artisan titles (The Item, Children of the Living Dead, "Twin Peaks: The First Season", The Center of the World), and a maddeningly good trailer for Sleepless round out the disc. Originally published: February 6, 2002.