Beginning with one of the most striking spectacles in the catalogue of the director's patented brand of absurdist bravura screen violence — that of a woman being murdered by having a French horn forcibly rammed down her throat by an unseen, but typically black gloved, perpetrator — Dario Argento's first (and in retrospect, probably his best) film of the decade pounces onto the screen in fine bloody style; the sequence proving to be but the prelude to a sustained fifteen minute tour de force of electrifying suspense that takes place onboard a train speeding through a rain-lashed Turin at night, and that culminates in two more violent murder set-pieces. It's all set to an exhilarating contemporary prog-rock score courtesy of the-then recently reformed Goblin — the musical collaborators who presided over many of Argento's finely crafted acts of cinematic bloodshed and mayhem during his cinema's great heyday in the '70s and 'early-'80s. The pounding music, the gliding camerawork and snappy editing, and Ronnie Taylor's luminescent photography (the imagery a shadow-rich tapestry woven in a muted palette of twilight colours): all of this is clearly meant to signify to the viewer a triumphant return to the kind of kinetic, stylised spectacle that had once so enthused fans of films such as "Deep Red", "Tenebrea" and (in particular) "Suspiria" — the only classic Argento film with a similarly relentless and strikingly loud opening sequence.
Co-written by the director and Franco Ferrini, one of his more regular screen writing collaborators since "Phenomena", "Sleepless" has a plot that is almost a work of art just by virtue of how it manages to take so many seemingly disparate elements and tropes from past classic Argento gialli ,and somehow assemble them into a framework that makes at least some kind of coherent sense at the end. There is inevitably an element of pastiche and self parody in the result, but for the most part, the film bangs along with such a sense of commitment to the classic giallo format that one is perfectly willing to suspend one's disbelief at the utter fantastical strangeness of the basic premise. This seems to be largely due to some clever script consultation by Italian thriller writer Carlo Lucarelli, whose contribution brings an air of logical police procedural to the thriller's solution that is — let's face it — usually distinctly lacking in a lot of Argento's work. "Sleepless", despite being crammed full of truly absurd plot points from beginning to end, does actually work as a piece of storytelling. The kicking off point for the story came about through Argento's expressed desire to make another film about characters with a similar relationship dynamic to that exhibited by the leads Karl Malden and James Franciscus in his second ever feature, "The Cat O' Nine Tails". In that film Malden played a blind older man while Franciscus was a rookie journalist, both of whom come together to solve a mysterious murder at a medical institute. In "Sleepless" the great Max Von Sydow plays Ulisse Moretti, a now-retired detective who, seventeen years before the main events of the film take place, promised a young boy whose mother was horrifically killed by a serial killer, that he would make it his life's mission to bring the culprit to justice.
That boy was Giacomo Gallo (Stefano Dionisi). Haunted ever-since by the vision of his mother's murder (and by the strange hissing noise that accompanied the killer's attack, and which turns out to be an important clue), he returns to Turin as a young man after some murders take place there that seem to relate to his mother's case. The murdered woman on the train was a prostitute who phoned her friend just before she was killed to tell her that she'd come into the possession of some documents and newspaper clippings (accidently procured from a client) that would shed further light on 'the dwarf' case from seventeen years ago. The police investigating the murders of both women first turn to the widowed former detective Moretti, who now languishes in retirement with only his pet parrot for company. It was he who implicated the hunched-backed, dwarf thriller writer Vincenzo De Fabritiis as the killer, all those years ago; but before Moretti could arrest the suspect, the dwarf's body turned up in a river, a single bullet through the head apparently indicating suicide. The police believe there is a copycat killer on the loose and they consult Moretti hoping to get some further details that might help them with the current case.
But Moretti's memory is failing him as he slips quietly into his dotage. When he meets Giacomo again (now a young man) he can't even remember making that old promise to catch his mother's killer. When further murders take place though, the two are joined in delving ever deeper into the past dwarf crimes, trying to make sense of the seemingly senseless happenings in present day Turin. When a witness claims to have seen a dwarf at the site of one of the murders (and Giacomo himself swears to catching a glimpse of him from an upper room at Vincenzo's former home!), the police exhume Vincenzo De Fabritiis' grave ... and find it empty! Is the dwarf killer still alive after all then, and oncemore active —resuming the interrupted cycle of murders based on one of his own giallo novels? Moretti, forced to reconsider the case alongside Giacomo, is drawn to a different conclusion. He finds evidence that Vincenzo's "Death Farm" novel was itself based on an even older nursery rhyme and, as the macabre murders continue, he wonders if he may have implicated the wrong man, and that the real killer was someone else all along.
With Argento returning to Turin as his film's primary location ("Cat O' Nine Tails", "Four Flies On Grey Velvet" and "Deep Red" were all shot in the picturesque city) there seemed to have emerged also a genuine nostalgia for his own past oeuvre, a nostalgia which the director had spent many years resisting by trying to pull in new directions in films like the edgy "The Stendhal Syndrome" and his remake of "The Phantom of the Opera". In "Sleepless" the plot is structured, very much like "Deep Red" , around a traumatic memory from a child's past (as if to emphasis this relation, Argento casts "Deep Red" actor Gabriele Lavia again, for the first time since "Inferno") which resurfaces to inform a contemporary set of crimes. Also recalling "Deep Red" is the use of a clockwork mannequin (later flagrantly stolen by the makers of the "Saw" franchise) and the crumbling, vine-covered villa that harbours "ghosts" from the past. Meanwhile "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" gets a nod in the use of an almost subliminal aural clue that turns out to be the means of solving the whole mystery. Argento's Animal Trilogy is referenced as a whole in the nursery rhyme on which the killer bases his crimes; while the menace of a prowling dolly shot and the otherworldly and rather strange effect created by a drifting, crane-mounted camera, recall the 'God's eye view' camera work in "Tenebrae", as does the almost gleeful emphasis on baroque screen violence: heads explode, teeth are smashed out against a wall and a succession of pretty Italian starlets are variously punched, throttled, drowned or decapitated — "Sleepless" is by far and away Argento's most violent film, although Sergio Stivaletti's very rubbery visual effects sometimes look woefully amateur in these days of CGI.
Still, it is that sense of the construction of violence as a balletic act of art, which only an Argento movie can fully convey — and "Sleepless" comes the closest to recapturing that sense of the Master in his prime. There aren't many Argento films where acting gets much of a look in, but Max Von Sydow brings some genuine emotional resonance to this film and its theme of the past betrayed, although his presence does constantly serve to highlight the deficiencies of some of the more inexperienced performers on screen. In the light of subsequent works, where Argento has moved to working with much younger writers, this feels like a final bow for the old school of Italian giallo scribes (although Argento did work with Ferrini one more time on the TV movie "Do You Like Hitchcock?"), and Argento's work has never again seemed as assured as it does here.
This new release from Arrow Video is part of their new 'Masters of Giallo' imprint, a label designed to showcase some of the best examples of classic Italian exploitation. Taking their cue from the success of the Shameless label, the disc comes with a double sided sleeve: one side features a newly designed piece of artwork which will tie it to all the other coming releases on the label, while the other side boasts the original Italian poster design. Unlike the previous UK disc from MRI, this version features a print with Italian inserts and an Italian title sequence with the film's original title of "NonHoSono" ("I Can't Sleep"). As well as the trailer and a photo gallery, the disc comes with a ten minute 'making of' culled from the Italian Medusa disc, an a brand new featurette, sourced by Arrow Video, called Murder, Madness and Mutilation: "Sleepless" and the modern Giallo. This is really just a brief outline of what makes a giallo film, intended for those unfamiliar with the genre, and with contributions from Joe Dante among others. It features clips from the trailer for "Blood and Black Lace" and "The Girl who Knew to Much", citing these Mario Bava films as the earliest gialli, and examines the usual themes and images that cropped up again and again during the massive boom in these kinds of movies during the '70s.