"SOME NIGHTMARES HAUNT YOU,
SOME... CAN KILL YOU."
directed by: Dario Argento (back of video blurb): choice dialogue:
starring: Asia Argento, Frederic Forrest, Brad Dourif, Christopher Rydell, Piper Laurie, Laura Johnson, James Russo, Dominique Serrano, Hope Alexander-Willis, Ira Belgrade
"... (can anyone help with this?) ..."
(back of video blurb): choice dialogue:
- Piper Laurie speaks in the tongue of one of the Head-hunter's victims at the seance
TRAUMA is a mediocre Argento movie; whilst none of his movies are without merit, and this has enough going for it to stop it being dismissed out of hand (after-all, a mediocre Argento movie is often better than the best efforts of some less talented directors), it is certainly not up there with any of his genre masterpieces DEEP RED (1975), SUSPIRIA (1977), INFERNO (1980) and TENEBRE (1982).
It opens with a signature Argento moment- a prowling, fetishistic camera weaving between miniature cardboard cut-out figures from the French Revolution which are gathered around a tiny guillotine; juxtaposed with the sounds, of what appears to be a Nazi rally. It's a great intro- one that wittily hints at the macabre events to come.
In (a fairly bland looking) Minneapolis (TRAUMA was Argento was transporting the giallo to a more alien setting), a mad killer stalks the streets decapitating the unwary with an electronic noose; the second of whom (and the first we see) is a chiropractor who, to her eternal regret, stays open late for one last appointment. The city held in the grip of terror by, what the press name 'The Headhunter', provides the backdrop for the chance meeting between media artist David (David Parsons) and a fatalistic young woman, Aura (Asia Argento); when he saves her from a suicide attempt. Quickly, he becomes fascinated by her sickly and secretive visage and learns that she is on the run from a psychiatric institute- The Faraday Clinic. She gives him the slip and eventually finds herself back home with her mother and father, Adrianna and Stefan Petrescu (Piper Laurie & Dominique Serrano)- a theatrical pair of professional mediums. That night, during a suitably gothic thunderstorm, Adrianna holds a seance for a small invited audience, during which it appears that she is filled with the spirit of one of the victims of the Headhunter. A voice bellowing from Adrianna's mouth tells one and all that the killer is seated amongst them; amid much confusion, she runs out into the storm- chased by her husband. Aura, watching the commotion from her upstairs window, also rushes into the night, in pursuit of her parents. As she comes across a clearing in the woods that adjoin the house, she finds what looks like their headless bodies. She glances up and through the rain catches a glimpse of a figure slowly backing into the darkness holding up what appears to be the severed heads in an effort to obscure their face...
During the police investigation- and subsequent media coverage, David sees Aura's photo on the news; and he is able to track her down. As more Headhunter victims turn up David joins forces with Aura to investigate her parent's gruesome deaths; and helps to protect her from forces out to destroy her tenuous grip on life. They follow a series of clues and via some fairly kooky coincidences they unravel the fragile mind of the mad killer...
Dario Argento had tested the waters Stateside with his Poe collaboration with George A. Romero in 1990, with TWO EVIL EYES. TRAUMA was the next film he directed, in 1993, and again it was a collaboration of sorts- this time with horror writer T.E.D. Klein (who received a credit as co-screen writer with Argento). It, superficially at least, seems to be a mixture of the supernatural and the tried-and-tested giallo formula- something it shares with his 1984 movie PHENOMENA (aka CREEPERS). In fact, although it appears to have occult trappings (the seance- the esoterics of which are cleverly exposed), it is more a straight ahead thriller- well, as much as any Argento film can be a 'straight ahead thriller'!
TRAUMA is occasionally a pleasingly twisted film, but whilst watching it I couldn't shake the feeling that it could have been all the more gloriously twisted if it were not for one thing- that it was trying to please its (perceived) American audience. As I've said (several times!) there is no way you can disguise Argento's intrinsic strangeness, but here it seems, well, kind of muted. Explaining why it fails somewhat, the film (and hence Argento) seems uncomfortable in its setting; especially in its attempts to transport some of giallo elements to a foreign setting. Whereas some films (Clive Barker's surreally trans-Atlantic HELLRAISER (1987) comes to mind) can benefit when it comes to creating a hybrid of cultures, Argento seems unsure of himself- unwilling to make a purely American thriller; but also unwilling to dispose of some of the more hackneyed clichés that are associated with it (like the banter between the news crew which doesn't ring true; and a strangely Hitchcockian score). The fact that although most of the principle players are fine, some of the cast just plain stink- giving stilted, clipped performances that sit at odds with what Argento was presumably trying to do. The film isn't helped either by Argento's strange desire to be almost incestually self-referential. Quite why he constantly nods or, let's face it, steals scenes from his other (usually better) movies is beyond me. The seance near the beginning (where the seer feels the presence of the killer) is lifted from DEEP RED (1975); as is the lizard (and its eventual death) and a death scene involving a lift is an expansion of the climax of that film; the lakeside setting for Paul's cottage seems very reminiscent of the house of the end of PHENOMENA; and the murders of two lesbian lovers seems a quite mercenary lift from TENEBRE (1982). The film isn't without embarrassing gaffs either. Asia Argento's character is repeatedly referred to as an anorexic, but she's shown vomiting after bingeing in the kitchen- surely the action of someone who's bulimic? Maybe I'm being pedantic- but that just smacked of laziness to me.
The good stuff- yes (!), I did think there was some good stuff here to cherish. Although Argento seems un-naturally muted in TRAUMA it doesn't stop some of his maverick flair shining through and there are some, albeit brief, moments of breath-taking stylistic flourish. There are flashes of sublime cruelty and sheer perversity- the kind for which Argento has rightly become known as a master of... A scene where a little boy can't sleep because a woman keeps staring at him from a window in the house opposite- what he doesn't know is that the eyes are contained in a decapitated head. Also a scene where the script takes delight in telling us that the victims are conscious whilst they loose their heads, because the killer paralyses them with a blow to the spine first. And the freakish sight of a freshly decapitated head uttering a few essential words with its death rattle (aided by a pleasingly gruesome Tom Savini effect). All vintage Argento- it's just a shame that the movie as a whole can't sustain the deranged ambience hinted at in these brief but vivid moments.
Many of Argento's films are like a particularly good wine- trouble is, once tasted, everything else is judged against that exceptional quality. TRAUMA isn't a bad film by any means- just merely an unsatisfying one.
BODYCOUNT 10 female:6 / male:4
1) Female beheaded with electronic noose
2) Female found beheaded
3) Male beheaded with electronic noose
4) Male killed (method unseen)
5) Female decapitated with electronic noose
6) Female killed (method unclear)
7) Female decapitaed with electronic noose
8) Male decapitated by lift
9) Male killed in car crash
10) Female beheaded with electronic noose