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Retro Review: SLEEPLESS (2001)

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SLEEPLESS
(Italy - 2001)

Directed by Dario Argento. Written by Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini and Carlo Lucarelli. Cast: Max von Sydow, Stefano Dionisi, Chiara Caselli, Gabriele Lavia, Rossella Falk, Paolo Maria Scalondro, Roberto Zibetti, Roberto Accornero, Barbara Lerici, Barbara Mautino, Conchita Puglisi, Massimo Sarchielli, Elena Marchesini, Guido Morbello, Aldo Massasso, Diego Casale, Alessandra Comerio, Daniela Fazzolari. (Unrated, 117 mins)

Those Dario Argento fans who lament his decline after his trailblazing run from 1970's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE to 1987's OPERA often speak of those later films as if he just suddenly started making terrible movies out of the blue. The shift was gradual, though it's easy to let an outright fiasco like 1998's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA cloud your judgment and taint everything surrounding it in his filmography. While things started to get precipitously bad around 2007's MOTHER OF TEARS, Argento's early 21st century output following PHANTOM--SLEEPLESS, THE CARD PLAYER, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?--has its merits and those films aren't as bad as their reputations suggest, even if they're unquestionably second-tier Argento. Such is the case with 2001's SLEEPLESS, a minor giallo in the Argento canon in retrospect but an important one at the time, as it was such an unabashed "give the fans what they want" movie that SHAMELESS might've been a better title. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was met with such hostility and was so flatly rejected by everyone, that SLEEPLESS served as an olive branch, made with the promise of being the old Argento you know and love, and he even got disbanded DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA composers Goblin to reunite for the soundtrack.






If Argento wasn't such a gifted stylist, the greatest-hits pandering he engages in throughout SLEEPLESS would almost be embarrassing. He's like a legendary classic rocker coming off an ambitious, badly-received concept album and a costly tour that flopped and is now determined to win back the fans by promising to play nothing but the old hits. There's endless, constant callbacks to his earlier classics in scene after scene after scene--a teeth-bashing murder and a set-up similar to the "walking dummy" bit from DEEP RED; a riff on the way someone suddenly appears in the frame like the climax of TENEBRAE; murder sequences in the rain like TENEBRAE, and another bit with a woman outside a train station that recalls Jessica Harper waiting for a taxi in a torrential downpour outside the airport in SUSPIRIA, or Eleonora Giorgi outside the library in INFERNO; a parent trying to cover for a their murderer child in PHENOMENA; an aging protagonist with a disability like Karl Malden's blind earwitness to murder in THE CAT O'NINE TAILS; a locked, abandoned villa that holds a secret, much like DEEP RED; a long tracking shot across the carpeted floor of a theater leading to a brutal murder that's strongly reminiscent of the famous Louma crane shot in TENEBRAE; and most important to all of Argento's gialli, the notion of the amateur sleuth who's hung up on a barely-remembered and seemingly insignificant detail that's ultimately the key to the mystery.


SLEEPLESS opens with a brief scene in Turin in 1983, as detective Ulisse Moretti (Max von Sydow) comforts a little boy who was hiding and listening as his mother was brutally murdered via an English horn being repeatedly, violently crammed into her mouth and throat. She's the latest victim of a "killer dwarf" in what's been dubbed by the press as "The Dwarf Murders." Cut to 2000 and the bizarre murders start once again, and though the murderer claims to be the Killer Dwarf, it's immediately deemed the work of a copycat, since the primary suspect in the Dwarf Murders drowned in what was ruled a suicide 17 years earlier, though his body washed away and was never found. The current detective on the case, Manni (Paolo Maria Scalandro) has no leads and reaches out to pick the brain of the retired Moretti, now an elderly widower with a heart condition and a spotty memory and seemingly in the earliest stages of Alzheimer's. Though he's foggy on some of the details, Moretti is still brought in as a consultant and ends up reconnecting with Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), the now-grown little boy from 1983 who's coincidentally been summoned from Rome to Turin by his childhood friend Lorenzo (Roberto Zibetti) when the Dwarf Murders become front-page news once again.


Much like Karl Malden and James Franciscus in THE CAT O'NINE TAILS, David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in DEEP RED, Anthony Franciosa and Christian Borromeo in TENEBRAE, and Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence in PHENOMENA, von Sydow's Moretti and Dionisi's Giacomo become yet another in a long line of Argento's unlikely sleuth teams resorting to their own investigation when the police either dismiss their concerns or have reached a dead-end. As you might guess, as they get closer to the truth, their lives are in danger (someone attempts to poison Giacomo's beer in a crowded bar at one point, but Lorenzo ends up drinking it and almost dies), and numerous red herrings abound, among them Lorenzo, his Giacomo-hating, asshole father (DEEP RED and INFERNO co-star Gabriele Lavia), and the killer dwarf's still-grieving, embittered mother (a semi-retired Rossella Falk, veteran of numerous vintage non-Argento gialli like Luigi Bazzoni's THE FIFTH CORD, Paolo Cavara's BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA, and Umberto Lenzi's SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS). And, as usual, the key to the mystery involves some obscure detail, in this case a little-known nursery rhyme for which Moretti can't remember the words, and a strange hissing sound heard amidst his mother's blood-gurgled screams that has stuck with Giacomo all these years and he still can't identify. There's absolutely nothing new here, but it's fun to see all of these Argento tropes being served up like giallo comfort food, not to mention the immeasurable boost it gets from the regal screen presence of the great von Sydow.


For these reasons, and in looking at Argento's subsequent decline through the benefit of hindsight, SLEEPLESS has aged better than expected. Much of that is due to the terrific transfer on Scorpion's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead), which represents the first proper presentation the film has had in America. Artisan Entertainment picked it up for the US and released it straight-to-video in the fall of 2001, but the DVD was a subpar transfer, and to add insult to injury, was only offered in 1.33:1 pan & scan. Of course, this was prior to the days of widescreen HDTV being the standard, but even then, most DVDs offered both widescreen and 1.33:1 "fullscreen" versions--either as two-sided discs or two different packages--the fullscreen option there for those holdouts who still couldn't grasp the concept of letterboxing. Now, at last, SLEEPLESS looks and sounds like it should, but it still has its faults that keep it firmly entrenched as second-rate Argento. The initially-welcome familiarity becomes a slight liability after a while, as one gets over the joy of Argento being Argento again and realizes that, no matter how much better this is than PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, it kinda just becomes Dario Argento's homage to Dario Argento. The killer, once revealed, starts using a weird vocal affect that sounds less like a sinister serial killer and more like a lost Festrunk brother; and at just under two hours, it's entirely too long, which makes the film's final minutes even more bizarre in the way Argento has the closing credits roll over the final scene as shit is still happening. It probably sounded like an outside-the-box idea on paper as a way of messing with the audience, but in execution, it's jarring and distracting, like the film is already 20 minutes too long but now he's in a mad rush to wrap it up. He would do the same thing over a final scene with Stefania Rocca in THE CARD PLAYER, but it was in a much less obtrusive fashion. SLEEPLESS is a far from perfect film, and it doesn't even crack the top ten of any "Best of Argento" lists, but at the same time, it also doesn't belong anywhere near the bottom, and at least now, with a quality Blu-ray presentation, it can be assessed on its own admittedly flawed terms by devout Argentophiles.



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