“Sleepless” is a blatant attempt by Argento to recapture the magic. It’s an old fashion giallo. The excellent opening theme, provided by a reunited-strictly-for-the-purpose-of-writing-this-score Goblin, certainly made me feel good about things. The long opening sequence of a hooker rejecting her john, being rejected by her john, jumping on a train, discovering some creepy stuff, and finally being chased and killed is suspenseful. When the attacked woman bleeds all over a window, rain water running down on the outside, you honestly think Argento maybe got it back.
The plot mostly concerns a retired police detective, played by Max von Sydow, and the victim of a serial killer teaming up to solve a new string of murders in a case that was thought to have been solved twenty years ago. The story is one of the few times Argento actually seems to be handling a genuine theme. “Sleepless” is about aging and maturation.
Max von Sydow is very good as the old detective, somebody whose memory is shaky and feels increasingly out-of-place in today’s high tech world. Detective Moretti only has one real friend, his pet parrot, and gets involved in the murders only out of a sense of responsibility to Giacomo, a young boy who's mother was murdered years ago. As he delves deeper into the mystery, Moretti’s memory comes back and his life seems to be exciting again. Sydow is maybe a bit too jovial for the macabre material but it’s a fun performance. The character exits the film before the end and, when he’s gone, so goes a lot of the movie’s energy.
While Moretti comes to accept his age, Giacomo is returning to his home town and childhood friends in order to put old demons to rest. Stefano Dionisi’s performance isn’t great but he’s not bad by any means and makes for a decent lead. He has good chemistry with Sydow. The scenes of the two of them sleuthing together prove to be the most entertaining moments in the film.
The story has a few interesting angles to it. The primary suspect for the murders back in the 1980s is both a dwarf and an author of giallo novels. (Shades of “Tenebre,” perhaps?) While both of these elements are potentially interesting, neither are really followed up on. The killer cuts out a paper animal at each murder and seems to be taking his inspiration from a bizarre, morbid nursery rhyme about slaughtering farm animals. (Written by Asia Argento, too.) In addition to the animal motifs, there’s a creepy abandoned house and some mommy issues too.
The murder mystery is fine but it’s honestly the characters that make this one worth watching. Aside from the relationship of the detective and the son, Giacomo has a group of friends, including a best friend and a teenage lover that is now dating some older asshole. While the female love interest isn’t developed too widely, the actress is likable. Generally speaking, I found the movie to have a bit more character and heart then I expect from Dario in this period of his career.
But what about the trademark Argento style? The opening murder certainly promises a lot, but the style department is where “Sleepless” really lacks. There’s some nice, prowling shoots of the outsides of houses but there’s not much in way of sweeping cinematography. The second murder sequence, which is not actually the second kill in the movie, works well enough, making good uses of darkened corridors and a ski mask with shinning eyes. The victim being drowned also recalls a similar scene in “Deep Red.” My favorite kill involves a long tracking shot of feet passing by, before we see our victim’s dangling feet, followed by her decapitated head.
Somebody gets murdered with a clarinets, which is creative and nasty, but the gore use here reminds me too much of how the gore was used in “Phantom of the Opera.” A sleazy cab driver is stabbed in the head with a pen and a girl has her face smashed into a wall. While both of these kills probably read great on paper, their execution lacks a certain something. There’s too much focus on the fake blood and latex gore. The camera seems to linger on the make-up effects, instead of on the intimate terror of the attack like in Argento’s best film.
While Goblin’s main theme is excellent, the rest of the score is a bit pedestrian. After Max von Sydow leaves the film, the story begins to flounder. Everything is wrapped up in a confusing jumble of double crosses and reveals. An important character detail, crucial to figuring out the killer’s identity, is revealed at the last minute with no lead-up or prior clues. Moreover, the final confrontation between victims and killer, traditionally a strong moment, lacks tension.
Despite having strong characters and a decent mystery going for it, “Sleepless” drops the ball in the last act. Argento is either unable or unwilling to create the same sort of visually beautiful, intense sequences of horror that he once did, despite his best efforts. [Grade: C+]