Turin, March 1983. A young boy lurks in the shadows, petrified and inconsolable. Having just witnessed the brutal murder of his mother, he finds solace when a kindly police inspector vows to find the responsible party. Flash forward to present, a prostitute, stricken with disgust and fear, proclaims she is not prepared to indulge her client’s inaudible requests. Later, she gathers her things as he sleeps and makes a hasty exit from the apartment. In a secluded carriage on a night train, the prostitute discovers that in her hurry to leave the apartment she inadvertently packed a blue file. Upon opening the file she discovers clippings and photographs that may link her client with several grisly murders. Petrified that the “killer” may be in pursuit, she calls a friend and asks to meet her at the station she plans to alight. When both the prostitute and her friend are killed in the most shocking fashion, the police begin an investigation that uncovers a connection between the murders of the women and that of a spate of killings seventeen years before. The original case had been closed supposedly when the chief suspect, a dwarf called Vincenzo, had been found floating in a canal with a bullet in his head. Although now retired, the detective who had been involved in the earlier case, Ulisse Moretti (Max Von Sydow – THE EXORCIST, THE SEVENTH SEAL) decides to look into the new case himself, and enlists the son of one of the victims to help…
So begins SLEEPLESS, a film that is rightly considered by many to be Argento’s return to form after a somewhat patchy period of films in the 1990s. SLEEPLESS also marked Argento’s return to the giallo after a hiatus that encompassed THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (which had elements of the giallo but is, for all intents and purposes, more of a psychological thriller) and the woefully misguided PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. From a screen play co-written by Argento, Franco Ferrini (who had collaborated with Argento on numerous occasions before, including work on films such as OPERA and PHENOMENA) and Carlo Lucarelli (better known in Italy as a novelist), SLEEPLESS at times feels like an homage to the director’s better work, incorporating plot devices from many of his earlier films. One cannot help but think that this was an attempt on Argento’s part to reconnect with those fans and critics that had written him off after enduring close to a decade of lesser works. The result is something of a blessing and a curse, and while SLEEPLESS has all the hallmarks of a giallo from Argento’s vintage period, the recycling of ideas and themes from other films lends something of a familiar feel to the proceedings. This is however not a bad thing, because by fashioning a straight giallo, Argento managed to steer himself clear of the many trappings that has led much of his post-TENEBRAE output into a corner that’s dated the films badly. For example, there is none of the reliance on technology or hair-brain “scientific discovery” that has hampered the likes of PHENOMENA and TRAUMA since the dust settled after their release. SLEEPLESS really is a back-to-basics affair that has afforded the film to weather the time since it came out a lot better.
Aesthetically speaking, SLEEPLESS is something of a mixed blessing too. The film reunited Argento with British cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, the pair previously having worked together on OPERA and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Taylor’s photography is assured when it comes to the roving point-of-view shots that one expects from an Argento film, but the image itself lacks the sumptuousness of many of the director’s best loved work, with an altogether flat, underwhelming look. SLEEPLESS also marked Argento’s collaboration with Goblin on a complete score for the first time since TENEBRAE, and this is somewhat more of a successful union. The film’s main theme is memorable and there are other distinctive cues that arise throughout the film’s duration, though there are also some techno-heavy pieces that do the film no favours.
Arrow’s disc, released under their new ‘Masters Of Giallo’ imprint is a strong release. While I never saw the previous UK release that was put out by M.I.A. in 2002, I understand that it was vastly inferior to the Italian disc from Medusa. The video, mastered in anamorphic widescreen, compares favourably with the Medusa release and serves Taylor’s cinematography well. While there is some grain evident in darker scenes, one would assume that this is how the film was originally intended to be seen and I would guess that there’s very little room for improvement here. The image is solid and flesh tones appear natural. The sound, which is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1, services the film well and creates a nice, enveloping ambience but is not the type of mix that’s going to give your system a thorough workout. The review copy I was sent features what appears to be the same English 5.1 mix that appeared on the Medusa disc and while the score and foley tracks are distinct, the dialogue is often a little hard to make out. Rest assured, I have been told that this mix is going to be reworked before the film is officially released, so this slight quibble should be eradicated by then. Arrow has also includes some interesting features. These include a stills gallery, the original Italian trailer and a behind-the-scenes documentary that was made at the time of the film’s release. Said documentary is in Italian with English subtitles. It’s quite an interesting piece and Argento talks quite candidly about his return to the giallo. There’s also a brand new featurette that examines the genre itself and SLEEPLESS’ place within it. This is a great piece for those discovering the giallo for the first time, but most many seasoned fans will probably not take much away that is new.
So, Arrow has done a fine job of this release. Minor flaws aside, the film itself is still an enjoyable giallo and sadly, it’s Argento’s last decent film. Incidentally, SLEEPLESS was the first part of a projected trilogy that was to have been immediately followed by DARK GLASSES. Due to a dispute over rights, the second film was not to have been, but it does make you wonder how different Argento’s subsequent work would have been had he continued on this trajectory. I guess we’ll never know.