Despite a few successful modern riffs on its foundational themes, giallo is largely a relic of the past, as visually tied to gaudy ‘70s signifiers, questionable fashion choices and post-’60s malaise as lurid plot mechanics and outlandish kills. Yet if someone was going to keep the genre alive, it should be Dario Argento, its most influential auteur and the best at fine-tuning and developing its formal sensibility. His attempts to extend giallo beyond the decade of its inception haven’t always been successful, but those that are serve as significant amendments, pinpointing key elements of what made the genre so effective, then recontextualizing them to ghastly effect.

This is the case with Sleepless, which operates off a basic narrative formula familiar from previous work, yet applies a different angle to its grim investigation. This prevents the film from feeling like tribute or pure referential homage; Argento is less interested in auto-critique or celebrating his previous accomplishments than sharpening the blade. So while Northern Italy circa 2001 may have been a less embattled place than it was decades prior, less riven by corruption and internecine political violence, the portrait presented is bleaker than ever, if only by virtue of so little having changed in sum. All manners of killers still stalk the night, a parade of perverts intent on wreaking havoc upon the innocent and helpless.

This is evident from the film’s intense opening, an extended set piece in which a sex worker accidentally discovers a client’s appalling secret, then attempts to flee before he can silence her. Boarding a nearly-vacant late-night train, she’s plunged into a nightmare scenario that, like the best Argento bits of business, plays as hallucinatory surrealism. Here a cellphone, a tool implemented in many horror movies as a beacon of hope, becomes another means of intimidation, as the stalker uses it to taunt and intimidate his intended victim. Rain pours down outside and incandescent light gets smudged and refracted within the darkened compartments, furthering the stifling feeling of compression inside this tomb-like tube.

The film’s plot itself involves the past returning to press down upon the present, a favorite Argento motif, and one that’s doubly powerful here, pointing back to his prime creative era. The initial killing signals the apparent resumption of the “Dwarf Murders,” a case that had previously been considered closed in 1983, when the suspected perpetrator committed suicide. Now, retired police inspector Ulisse Moretti (Max von Sydow) must attempt to overcome his spotty memory to try and aid an amateur sleuth in figuring out the actual solution.

Once again, a band of otherwise carefree 20-somethings are menaced by a murky conspiracy, one after another picked off in a series of increasingly elaborate kills. The ritualistic destruction of youth in flower is probably the most common horror trope, but in Argento’s hands it again becomes the driving force of a caustic pageant of social commentary, in which evil functions as an oozing effusion of entrenched systems of power. Society’s outsiders again have a significant effect on the proceedings, with the “Dwarf Killer” red herring leading to a homeless alcoholic living camped out in the supposed killer’s abandoned mansion. The wino eventually proves to be a mere pawn for another privileged, deranged murderer, again explicitly acting out the implicit dictates of a rigid, unequal culture.

All of this is familiar for frequent Argento viewers, and the biggest change on display in Sleepless is that the kills seem even more revolting than during his prime, less campy and packing a greater visceral punch, even if the gore is not necessarily more pronounced. This may have something to do with an increased emphasis on blunt trauma, but it’s ultimately hard to tell if this effect is due to improvements in filming technique or an interest in making audiences feel the impact. By stripping away some of the artifice and further fine-tuning the political message, Argento ends up with an admirable update that modernizes all the usual motifs, clarifying his nasty vision in characteristically vibrant fashion.

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