Meditations on the present and the past in Dario Argento’s Sleepless
The spatial and temporal metaphysics of Dario Argento’s first film made in the early 21st century prove to be both a self-reflection on the Italian director’s career and a self-critique of the gialli that catapulted him to fame. Whether premeditated satire or not, Argento’s Sleepless scrutinizes the best and worst of the best-known subgenre in the Italian horror film domain yet does so in contemporary territory within the new millennium, where the baroque procedures of the gialli are somehow now outmoded for the new digital age. The truth is that I find this exercise in formal reminiscences – which evoke the director’s finest works and encapsulate an influential, indisputable legacy – utterly nostalgic. The premise of Sleepless dogmatically adheres to the gialli handbook -particularly the plot is an amalgam of Deep Red, Tenebre and Argento’s zoological trilogy, all undisputed classics of his most fecund era- a serial killer commits meticulous murders that mimic the structure of a cunning labyrinth, in this case that of the verses of a children’s story. But rather than delve into its hoary plot, I’m more interested in immersing myself in its intricate interplay between the present and the past. Some will argue that this is the last Argento film with the legitimate right to be called a good film, and equally the only one of his films to share stylistic patterns with his earlier films. After Sleepless, the late work of the horror maestro has been nothing but a perpetual fiasco. I mention this, because the temporal meditation of Sleepless already displays intimations of the creative deterioration of one of the most consistent horror filmmakers in the history of modern cinema.
Hypothetically, I suspect that Argento is aware of his artistic decline; and right here he seems to be reflecting on that decline while simultaneously embracing his most iconic idiosyncrasies. Max von Sydow plays a former detective in the perfidious and gloriously bloody plot of Sleepless. In 1983 this detective investigated the case of a cold-blooded serial killer who murdered Giacomo’s helpless mother when Giacomo was just a child. Apparently, the perpetrator of this grisly crime was a man of abnormally short stature, who was nicknamed “The Dwarf Killer”. However, the case was never closed, since the identity of the murderer was never confirmed, and that dwarf man lies in the depths of a cemetery. In the first year of the millennium, the evil shadow of this murderer from the past returns to disturb Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), now a young man who still lives with the vivid memory of his mother’s murder. The former detective who followed this case in 1983 is tempted to complete the pieces of the puzzle he never solved, so he decides to re-investigate what he could not unravel in the past. Rhymes are evident in the individual and holistic iterations Argento articulates in this renaissance giallo. As a hilarious speculation we could deduce that the character played by Max von Sydow is interchangeable with Dario Argento. The dichotomous temporal references – in the formal and storytelling spectrum – that emerge in the story with snarky gusto allude to the technological transformations that cinema was undergoing in that period when the film was made. I have consistently believed that Argento’s late films have never functioned as they should for one simple reason: the baroque paraphernalia of Italian exploitation cinema corresponds to a specific period where it justifies its existence, thereby making it impossible for it to be reciprocally incorporated into the plastic digitization of the new cinema.
When Argento directed masterpieces such as Profondo Rosso or L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, the social and political circumstances were different from those of today, and the sensibilities were radically dissimilar to those that our contemporaneity experiences. Moreover, the format of his gialli in the 70’s are manifestly incompatible with the glossy and velvety perceptibility of the new high-definition formats of the early 2000’s. Admittedly, Argento in the 21st century has struggled to implement the raw, stylized praxis of the gialli in a realm that simply refuses to accept them. Consequently, most of his endeavors end in unmitigated debacles. Just as Argento must acquiesce to these digital revolutions, the detective in Sleepless should do the same but ironically declines to do so, he playfully criticizes the novel devices the police use to catch criminals; he refuses to utilize these newfangled technologies and prefers to stick to old-fashioned investigative methods. There is a farcical overtone throughout the dramatic mood of the film that simulates the very comic irreverence of a satire. Each of these elements infuse the film with thoughtful properties, and in its multifarious mirages – when the plot juxtaposes the killer’s modus operandi in 1983 with that of the present day – the itinerant plot sets up wistful reminiscences of Dario Argento’s career in collision with an irrepressible modernity. Interestingly, the referential and comparative scheme becomes even more evocative every time the music of Goblin -emblematic band that has collaborated in the score of several Argento’s films- conducts with its electric frenzy the operatic violence with interspersed musical tonalities derived from other memorable soundtracks in the Argento canon. All in all, whether or not it is the film that concludes Dario Argento’s most robust period, Sleepless remains an essential piece in his oeuvre, though not necessarily for its wit, but for its essayistic format that muses on one of the most extraordinary careers in the history of cinema. There is no such thing as modern horror cinema without Argento in the film history books.