Sleepless Review

Turin. A series of murders bears a strong resemblance to one that took place seventeen years ago in the same city. Detective Moretti (Max von Sydow), who worked on the previous unsolved case, is called out of retirement to help the police hunt down the newly reactivated serial killer…

Sleepless (Non ho sonno, literally I Can’t Sleep, in Italian) was a return to the giallo style of Argento’s earlier work. It’s been heralded as a return to form, which it is up to a point. But only up to a point. On the plus side, there’s a pleasingly convoluted plot and Max von Sydow’s authoritative presence: when he’s not on screen, the film sags, and the film’s use of a second protagonist doesn’t really work. There are also the set-piece murder scenes, beginning with an extended chase on a train. Sleepless proves that Argento hasn’t run out of imaginatively vicious ways for one person to kill another – you don’t see a cor anglais used as a murder weapon every day of the week. Needless to say, this is definitely not a film for the squeamish. Sleepless may well have benefited from recent BBFC liberalisation (and Argento’s critical reputation) as some of these scenes might not have survived their scissors a few years ago. Rest assured (or be warned!) that this edition of Sleepless is entirely uncut, and is identical to the version I saw on the big screen at London’s Frightfest in August 2001.

Unfortunately, Sleepless relies a little too heavily on a graphic murder scene turning up every fifteen minutes or so. This was particularly evident for me on a second viewing: the impact is lessened along with the shock value (during the cor anglais murder referred to above, it becomes more obvious that the victim’s head is made out of rubber) and the film fails to stand up quite so well as it did first time round. Sleepless, as the making-of documentary, makes clear was shot in English but the dialogue was post-synched. This isn’t a problem with Von Sydow, who dubs his own lines in this English version, but it leads to awkward results with the supporting cast. Two of them are even given absurd Mockney accents, which emphasise poor performances to begin with. The camerawork by British DP Ronnie Taylor (who previously shot The Phantom of the Opera and Opera for Argento as well as working with Richard Attenborough – how’s that for a contrast?) lacks distinction, which lets down such a visual director as this one.

Missing in Action’s two-disc set (a DVD-9 and a DVD-5) has a worthwhile set of extras, but drops the ball when it comes to picture quality. Filmed in 1.85:1, Sleepless is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 16:9 by opening the matte a little above and below the picture. It’s an anamorphic transfer. However, the colours are dull and flat (partly the fault of the original) and the shadow detail is poor (particularly in the train scene near the beginning, where in some shots it’s impossible to see what’s going on). Any lined or checked surface aliases and shimmers considerably.

The sound mix is the theatrical Dolby Digital track transferred to disc as Dolby Digital 5.1. The main beneficiary of this is Goblin’s score (not ineffective, but it pales in comparison to some of their other work). Apart from that there are occasional directional effects, and the subwoofer is called it to lend weight to the score, and impact to certain gunshots. There are an adequate fifteen chapter stops but unfortunately no subtitles.

The extras on the first disc begin with the theatrical trailer, which is in Italian. Unlike the feature, it’s in the correct ratio of 1.85:1, though not anamorphic, with a Dolby Surround soundtrack, running 1:21. The making-of (which runs 15:10) looks like it was made for Italian TV, and mixes on-set footage with interviews, all with fixed English subtitles. It’s full-frame and looks like it originated on video, though oddly the interview footage is letterboxed to 1.85:1. It’s a decent effort as far as these promo items go, though marred by gimmicky direction: each interview segment begins with a quick flash of the subject in negative, then some lettering, then back to the subject. Time and time again. It gets very tedious. The only other extras on the first disc are a stills gallery, basic bio/filmographies for Argento and the principal cast, and (as an Easter egg - highlight the knife on the Special Features menu) a note from the director on three pages of text.

Apart from a brief (six-image) stills gallery, the second disc contains the 57-minute documentary, Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror, directed by Leon Ferguson, which has been previously shown on Film 4 and Channel 4 in the UK. It’s shown in 16:9 anamorphic, with a Dolby Surround soundtrack, and is divided into sixteen chapters. Narrated by Mark Kermode, it’s a straightforward trek through Argento’s career, including interviews with the man himself (in Italian, translated by an English voiceover), critics (Alan Jones, Maitland McDonagh, though surprisingly not Kim Newman), fellow directors (John Carpenter, George Romero, William Lustig), Argento’s former wife Daria Nicolodi, daughters Fiore and Asia, collaborators on both sides of the camera, and at least one high-profile fan, namely Alice Cooper. Picture quality is fine – this is broadcast-quality video we’re talking here – apart from some white framelines turning up here and there, such as at the very beginning. As a documentary, it’s fine as far as it goes, though certain issues – such as Argento’s alleged misogyny – are rather skated over. (Having a woman, namely Maitland McDonagh, rebut the charge isn’t necessarily conclusive.) Other subjects – Mike Sutton touched on one on this very website when he mentioned Agatha Christie’s influence on the entire giallo subgenre – could have been explored in more depth, but in the film’s defence, there’s only so much space in a film designed to fill an hour-long TV slot.

More seriously, An Eye for Horror is less than critical, with the result that most of his films made since Opera are hardly mentioned if at all. So we don’t get any mention of Argento’s commercial marginalisation: none of those films was given a UK cinema release. (Nor for that matter, was Sleepless.) Many, myself included, would argue that Argento has been in creative (not just commercial) decline for at least the last decade and a half, and Sleepless is a temporary reprieve at best. For Argento’s hardcore fanbase – which is now his entire audience – this DVD will be a must, though many would wish for better picture quality on the main feature.

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