I can’t sleep… …so I penned a love letter to Dario Argento’s Sleepless

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Appreciation of a film is very subjective, not just to personal resonance, the period of our lives in which we watch it and taste but also the wider context in terms of genre and technical competence. All or some of these elements may combine leaving us with both our personal impression and the wider accepted view. However it may also mean that we love films that perhaps we shouldn’t and dismiss films that maybe require reappraisal. 

In regards to the giallo genre one such film that I believe falls into the latter for many is SLEEPLESS aka Non Ho Sonno by Dario Argento.

No introduction is needed for this director or the impact that he has had not just on Italian horror but the wider genre overall and frequently when his name is mentioned amongst fans be it at a festival, in the pub or on a cult internet forum, the debate of what constitutes his last great film is raised.

For some it is TENEBRAE, for others it ended with OPERA although I have also seen cases made for THE STENDHAL SYNDROME and even DRACULA 3D….ok maybe that last one was a joke, in more ways that one. But for me it is unequivocally SLEEPLESS.

In fact I propose that SLEEPLESS is not only his best work in the last three decades but also represents the very best of all post-nineties gialli. Not because it is a Dario Argento film but because it is one of the very few that actually adheres to the tropes of the genre, incorporating them into a working narrative whilst simultaneously managing to engage with the audience.

Now let’s be clear I am not against innovation or adaption of the genre rules, the giallo genre throughout its history is rife with appropriation and adaption having gone through several cycles, adapting itself to the requirements and preferences of audiences at any given time from Hitchcockian and Agatha Christie murder mysteries, to the psychological or the psycho-sexual and then the straight-out erotic by way of the occult and supernatural, although not necessarily all in that order.

So films such as SYMPHONY IN BLOOD RED from Luigi Pastore, FRANCESCA from Luciano Onetti not to mention AMER from Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani and THE TRANSPARENT WOMAN from Domiziano Cristopharo all have their merits but it is the likes of  ALMOST BLUE from Alex Infrascelli and EYES OF CRYSTAL from Eros Puglielli that sit alongside SLEEPLESS in that they are the most true to the genre, although a special mention has to go to Sergio Martino for the disappointing TV movie MOZART IS A MURDERER (1999) that also attempted to fit into the more traditional genre style.

However while ALMOST BLUE and EYES OF CRYSTAL provide a decent watch, they both fall by the wayside when talking about actual giallo, as we would understand it as opposed to the wider Italian interpretation of the genre – with one element of where we differ in terms of the mystery genre being the deployment of a professional detective.

Additionally, ALMOST BLUE  and EYES OF CRYSTAL are both based on novels, therefore they are constrained further due to having to remain true, to an extent, to the source material. While SLEEPLESS, although co-written by a novelist (Carlo Lucarelli) was free to be written purely for the screen – and as a result is better able to visually mimic the giallo film formula, with mimic being a key term.

It is at this point that I may lose the support of some of you, have I made a contentious claim here? Going back to my opening thought, it is clear that how we interpret the genre and how we define also shapes our arguments and our preferences.

For me, a black gloved killer, POV shots and plot absurdity, to some level at least, reign supreme as a staple of the genre. That is why I feel assured and certain in my argument that SLEEPLESS is not only the last quality film made by Dario Argento but also the best giallo of the last three decades.

But why do I rate this film so much and why should you check it out or give it another go?

Coming three years after the misguided attempt that was THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998), fan expectation was low and with good reason as Dario Argento had spent years proclaiming that he did not want to finish his ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy – he would – or make another DEPP RED just because of fan pressure and that he would rather indulge in his own creative interests. 

However for one reason or another he returned to the genre he made his own and whether he committed fully to the project or not, the brief footage in ‘The Making of Sleepless’ extra from Arrow Video’s UK DVD release certainly makes it seem like he had a change of heart, the end result is an energetic and authentic giallo that throws as much on the screen as it can.

Opening immediately with an upbeat killer theme tune, courtesy of Goblin in their first collaboration with the director since PHENOMENA, we witness retrospectively a scene set in Torino at some point during March, 1983 where a young boy named Giacomo is being consoled by Police Inspector Moretti after the brutal killing of his mother.

Jumping to modern day Turin, a prostitute is having trouble with her client but after the offer of additional payment she suddenly becomes a little more amenable to whatever perverse demands were put to her. Once her sadomasochistic customer falls asleep our luckless prostitute attempts to leave only to overhear sleep-talking about killing lots of people. Panicking she rushes to leave, knocking into a small cabinet and sending its contents along with that of her bag flying everywhere. Now a mixture of files, press cuttings and make up not to mention a kill kit lay strewn across the floor and in her rush to leave she hastily grabs her items and leaves. Taking with her a key piece of evidence and starting an exhilarating and brutal chase sequence complete with ramped-up tension, POV shots and of course excessive violence and blood.

A blistering twenty minutes opens this film and putting any implausibility aside, admittedly you might have to, it is highly satisfying to finally get a film that plays out like the genre of old.

Sleepless by Dario Argento

As the film progresses events lead a couple of investigating officers back to what was known as the ‘Dwarf killer’, a case that was investigated and solved by our old friend Moretti back in the early eighties. 

Now that this old case is awoken so is the murderer’s intent, with the ferocity and frequency that a slasher film would be proud of. Off-camera it is at the point of the films third murder that something rather strange for a Dario Argento film occurs – the gloved hands of the killer are not those of the iconic director but rather another crew member. The reason for this was simple, as stated to Almar Haflidason in an interview with the BBC, it was simply because the “gloves were too big” for his hands. With something as mundane as this a Dario Argento directorial tradition was broken.

The opening act of the film coming to a close we see a now grown-up Giacomo thrown back into the mix, along with a brutal alternative flashback of the films opening scene, completing our back-story while driving the narrative forwards as an entertaining modern amateur investigation links the past and the present almost like a play off Dario Argento’s greatest hits including a killer dwarf (a la Deep Red), fiction influencing reality (a la Tenebrae) and much more across displaying wider genre influence and history.

Constantly straddling the line between parody and authenticity SLEEPLESS takes an almost frantic, kitchen sink approach but the tight pacing, intriguing mystery and clever, if sometimes convenient, plot devices keep it ticking over as the writers leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the investigating characters (and viewers) to follow with twists, turns and red herrings at each and every step of the way and as we slowly understand more we find ourselves engrossed in this violent mystery.

In regards to the success of the scripting we must be careful giving Dario Argento all of the credit or perhaps even the lions share as alongside him was semi-frequent collaborator Franco Ferrini (EYES OF CRYSTAL; PHENOMENA; OPERA; THE CARD PLAYER) and, I would propose more importantly, crime television celebrity and author Carlo Lucarelli (writer of the novel Almost Blue) who is also credited with contributing to the story. Although his exact involvement is unconfirmed the fact remains that SLEEPLESS is above and beyond the films of Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini both immediately before and everything after , so the only difference in this respect being Carlo Lucarelli.  

But whatever the reason and all speculation aside every aspect of SLEEPLESS works, from the pacing and (preposterous) story to the Goblin score all the way to the excellent special effects which beautifully highlight the art of violence that Dario Argento is best known for. 

Sergio Stivaletti (DEMONS; OPERA; DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE) has to receive the credit here as he does exceptionally well on a limited budget, never hiding the gore as he displays these not only extremely bloody but also inventive pieces of work as fingers are chopped, teeth smashed and heads exploded.

Although we must accept that this is still a modern day Dario Argento movie and for all the positives there are still a few areas in which the director misses the mark for one reason or another. One such example is the cinematography which is functional at best and admittedly lacking that extra bit of flair that was prevalent in his seventies output but perhaps more seriously there is a moment which cannot be simply chalked down to cultural or historical attitudes as one might do with some of the characters or scenes from his early to mid seventies output.

This is the insensitive choice of comical, almost circus-like music for the scene in which the police round up the city’s dwarves. This particular scene comes across as ill-judged at best. Meanwhile others may criticise the films over-the-top adoption of the genres tropes which at times leave the film open to being a pastiche of Dario Argento’s work rather than actually being from the director himself. Conversely this might also be to the films benefits in regards to the entertainment stakes.

Ultimately I can admit that SLEEPLESS is riddled with plot holes and conveniences, it panders to the needs of the giallo fan and can be seen as a souped-up TV movie, but what separates it from being another MOZART IS A MURDERER are these very same points.

The film counters any story issues with strong pacing…and violence, so sure it does pander to the needs of the giallo fan but is that such a bad thing when it is being delivered by someone with the credibility and validity of Dario Argento? 

Meanwhile the casting and performance of Max Von Sydow (THE SEVENTH SEAL; THE EXORCIST) lends the film a certain level of gravitas unreachable by many other films produced around the same time or the straight to TV produced gialli. Not to mention strong turns by Gabriele Lavia (DEEP RED) and Rossella Falk (BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA; SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS) giving the film yet another link to the past.

The giallo genre’s decline is well document and the new breed producing this cinematic art form have moved on, evolved if you will, that much is clear but every now and then is it so bad to want something modern that does more than just pay a slight visual or audio homage to the past? 

I say no and for those very moments SLEEPLESS is there. So if you are yet to see it or if you have only seen it the once I recommend you give it another go.

The Transparent Woman (2015) By Domiziano Cristopharo

Reviews

Director: Domiziano Cristopharo
Screenplay: Andrea Cavaletto
Year: 2015
Starring: Roberta Gemma, Arian Levanael, Giovanna Nocetti

Synopsis:
Anna is a fiercely independent blind woman. Her husband Carl sells their apartment and they move into his childhood rural home where, left alone during the days, Anna starts to believe that someone…or something is in the house with her.

Review:
THE TRANSPARENT WOMAN is the thirteenth directorial effort from the prolific writer/director/producer Domiziano Cristopharo and also the fourth time he has worked with actress Roberta Gemma (HOUSE OF FLESH MANNEQUINS; HYDE’S SECRET NIGHTMARE; BLOODY SIN) and it is perhaps of little surprise for fans of these two that the film practically opens with nudity as our lead couple Carl (Arian Levaneal – BLOODY SIN; DARK WAVES; P.O.E 3) and his partner, the blind Anna (Roberta Gemma) are in the bathroom going through their usual routine, all while their actions are set to an almost sensual, playful seventies style track reminiscent of Nora Orlandi et al. from days long lost, courtesy of the award-winning American/Italian film composer team DiBona & Sangiovanni.

Rather interestingly, particularly considering all involved are not prudish, director Domiziano Cristopharo shows some restraint here and rather than leading us towards something a little more risqué or hardcore he switches things up courtesy of a glorious credit sequence. Of which the style genuinely took me by surprise. So  realistically gloriously retro is the feeling it invokes that it was up there with the rebooted French ‘OSS:117’ films in terms of fun. No doubt aided by another hugely enjoyable track.  

We learn that our happy couple are moving back into the childhood home of Carl, a man whose piercing blue eyes and rugged masculine looks are almost enough to make you brush off the subsequent bizarre nature of a scene in which he begins to start playing an accordion by the fireside only to briefly enter a physical trance that seemingly only we, the viewer, can see. This trance represents the rekindling of old memories as Carl appears to be trapped in a loop but also seems to serve almost as a turning point in the couples relationship – one where it now no longer just the two of them.

On an initial viewing this scene does appear to come out of nowhere on and as a British viewer the use of an accordion seemed somewhat strange (although admittedly not as strange as its appearance in HOLY MOTORS) but does serve a narrative function. I was fortunate enough to have discussed this film with the director after an initial viewing and discovered that this choice of instrument was inline with rural Italian culture and so perhaps, like with many films from a different culture, was a culturally-specific choice that while adding substance and authenticity would not be picked up by wider, international audiences. Or at least not in the way initially intended. 

Whatever the justification, the accordion playing worked and Anna becomes a little more settled into their new home, which is good as she will be spending her days alone in the house. It is in these moments of solitude that Anna starts to suspect there is someone else there. This seemingly standard woman-in-peril set up is coupled with the breadcrumbs dropped by writer and frequent Cristopharo-collaborator Andrea Cavaletto which leads us to speculate on a past emotional trauma that affected Carl and that also may have happened in that house previously. 

As the mystery progresses and unravels, when we move away from the story and begin to focus on the aesthetics it becomes apparent that Domiziano Cristopharo is no amateur when it comes to understanding the importance of light and composition in order both elicit and project mood. For instance as he bathes several shots in blue the end results are beautiful and serve to mark him out as a real talent in an industry that is becoming increasingly Americanised or should that be homogenised and less about individual style. 

The aesthetics, of which I include cinematography, are perhaps more impressive when one considers the films meagre budget but when we consider the directors past perhaps we should not be so surprised.

Again this point is important because this focus on the visuals (and sound) is arguably more important in THE TRANSPARENT WOMAN due to the limited dialogue employed. 

With the exception of our two leads, and even then Anna spends many days alone, there is very little interaction with anyone else but here every interaction counts and rather than be a hindrance it instead helps to generate additional tension and combines will all other elements to produce an engaging film. 

Furthermore this result is made possible thanks to the decent performances of our leads, which although not Oscar worthy are enough to keep you immersed in the world. Roberta Gemma in particular I have to say impressed me considering the role, due to its isolation, could have proven quite tricky even for a more accomplished actress.

Certainly not everything in THE TRANSPARENT WOMAN worked for me, and I doubt it will be very different for you but regardless of this the film is beautifully composed, competently acted and most importantly of all – it is intriguing; as you want to know what has happened previously and you need to know what is going to happen after.

THE TRANSPARENT WOMAN will appeal to fans of the neo-gialli of Cattet & Fozani (AMER; THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS) as well as Onetti (DEEP SLEEP; FRANCESCA) thanks to its peppering of artistic shots, at times reminiscent of the visuals of Bava and Argento, and its less traditional (at least in regards to the non-Italian interpretation of the giallo) take on the genre. 

It is interesting also to note that THE TRANSPARENT WOMAN was actually constructed by several writers with the initial story coming from Francesco Massaccesi, Elio Mancuso and director Domiziano Cristopharo before finally being scripted by Andrea Cavaletto and it is of great credit to this group that at no point does the film ever lose focus or become disjointed. No doubt having Cristopharo bookending the process meant that the concept was kept cohesive from beginning to end.

Ultimately a tale of loss, reliance and the inability to accept the consequences of one’s actions, THE TRANSPARENT WOMAN is well paced, beautifully crafted and a creative mystery drama that I believe everyone should check out.

Finally keep an eye out for the 1970’s singer Giovanna Nocetti who pops up in a very unexpected role.