TRAUMA (1993)

"Whose face? You saw him! Tell me! Whose face, Aura?"
"I didn’t see anything!"

Director: Dario Argento
Starring: Asia Argento, Christopher Rydell, Piper Laurie, Frederic Forrest, James Russo, Ira Belgrade, Laura Johnson, Dominique Serrand, Brad Dourif, Hope Alexander-Willis, Isabell Monk
Screenplay: Dario Argento and T.E.D. Klein

Synopsis: One rainy evening, Dr Jackson (Isabell Monk) has just recognised her new patient when she is struck down by a blow to the spine. Paralysed but conscious, she can only watch as her killer slips a thin wire about her throat and activates an automatic winding device…. The grisly business done, the killer leaves with the doctor’s head. Driving across a bridge, David Parsons (Christopher Rydell) is horrified to see a young girl climbing over the railing. He rushes to her assistance, and although she insists she wants to die, the girl, Aura Petrescu (Asia Argento), allows David to save her. Convinced from the marks on Aura’s arms that she is a drug addict, David – a recovered user – takes her to a diner, where he offers to help her. Aura reacts angrily, denying she has any such problem. Seeing a car from Youth Services outside the diner, Aura tells David she must go to the bathroom. She does, vomiting up the food she has just eaten, then flees the building. The officers from Youth Services recognise her as the girl missing from the Faraday Clinic, a psychiatric hospital, and force her into their car despite her screams and struggles. Inside the diner, David realises that Aura has taken his wallet. Aura is taken to her parents, Adriana (Piper Laurie) and Stefan (Dominique Serrand). Adriana welcomes her warmly, but Stefan scolds her for causing her mother so much grief. That evening, Adriana, a professional medium, holds a sťance. Heavy rain begins to fall as the guests arrive. Aura’s psychiatrist, Dr Judd (Frederic Forrest), also arrives. Adriana tries to contact her spirit guide, Nicholas, but instead is contacted by the spirit of Dr Jackson. Speaking through Adriana, she says that she will not be the last of the killer’s victims, and that the killer is present in the room…. The storm shatters a window, and the guests scream in terror. From an upstairs window, Aura sees her mother running across the grounds of their house. Stefan goes after his wife, and to his horror stumbles over a headless body. The next instant, a wire loops about his throat…. Aura follows her parents, screaming in horror at what she finds. Suddenly, Dr Judd grabs her, demanding to know what she saw. Aura tells him she did not see the killer, as he held her parents’ heads before his face…. Police Captain Travis (James Russo) questions Judd about Aura. While he refuses to discuss her medical condition, Judd says the girl has no relatives, and that he wants her released into his care. Travis says that will be possible after she has been questioned. However, Aura has fled the scene. David gets a call from the girl at the television station where he works. When he meets her, her obvious distress makes him offer her a place to stay. When he goes back into the building, he sees a news report on the murders and realises who Aura is. Aura asks David to take her to the house, so that she can collect some clothes. He agrees reluctantly. When they get there, they find the power out. David takes a flashlight to the basement to find the fusebox, while Aura goes upstairs. At that moment, someone else enters the house…. David gets the power on, and suddenly Adriana’s voice floods the house: it is a tape recording of the sťance. Outside, David finds that his car window has been smashed. Late that night, David discovers that Aura has ruined all the food in his kitchen; he then finds her being sick in the bathroom. At work the next day, David tells his friend, Arnie (Ira Belgrade), that Aura is an anorexic. Arnie warns him that she likely to be suicidal. That night, Aura sees David having sex with his girlfriend, Grace (Laura Johnson). Shocked and hurt, she flees. To Grace’s fury, David insists on going after her. The next day, Arnie tells David that he’s discovered that the killer only strikes when it’s raining. David gets a phone-call from a terrified Aura. As he listens, he hears the girl being dragged away. Rushing home, David finds Grace, who tells him coolly that she reported Aura’s whereabouts to the Faraday Clinic. At the clinic, Judd forces Aura to swallow a psychotropic drug. This triggers a stream of memories, dreams and nightmares in Aura’s mind – along with the sudden, jolting realisation of what she really saw on the night of her parents’ murders….

Comments: Given the ongoing Americanisation of world cinema – and worse, the accompanying inference that nothing can be of value unless it is "American" (I recall an acquaintance who, before he would admit the merits of a very celebrated British actor, wanted to know what American films he’d made) – I find it amusing to consider that of the many criticisms that have been levelled at Dario Argento’s Trauma, the most frequent is that the film is "too American" – this generally being said in a way that implies that there’s nothing worse you could say about it. The issue here, of course, is not just The USA vs The Rest, but the attempted transplantation of a genre. In cinematic terms, I think it is true enough that some things simply don’t travel. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has sat dumbfounded (and/or convulsed with laughter) as I’ve watched Caucasian actors making fools of themselves doing things onscreen that, when done by Asian actors, look perfectly natural and probable. With Trauma, Argento undertook the relocation of that distinctly Italian sub-genre, the giallo; and the result, while not, in my opinion, being as bad as many reviewers have made out, is undeniably a compromised work. The film as a whole has the feeling of restraint, of something that is being prevented from going "too far". The project is further undermined by the grafting of Argento’s baroque style onto scenes set in conventional American locations. Granted, it could be argued that this reaction to the film is less the recognition of a genuine flaw and more the result of cinematic conditioning; audiences tend to be more accepting of bizarre events when they occur in exotic settings than when they happen in "the real world"; but in any event, the urbanised landscapes of the film make a very uneasy backdrop for the visual flourishes that punctuate the story. As for that story, Argento is far too liberal with his allusions to his earlier works; we are constantly reminded that he has made much better films than this. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that it is Deep Red, perhaps his best film (or at least, his best giallo), that the director most often chooses to reference. Here we have again the revelation of clues during a sťance; decapitation by garrotte rather than blade; a gruesome death involving an elevator; and the demise of the apparent killer in a car-related accident. The contributions of the cast are erratic at best. Frederic Forrest and James Russo overact at every opportunity; while the casting of Piper Laurie as Asia Argento’s mother forces the actress to speak with a "Romanian" accent that is both unconvincing and extremely distracting, and which takes some of the shine off her otherwise quite effectively flamboyant performance. As you would expect from Argento, there are murders aplenty in Trauma, although the killer’s fixation with headhunting makes them somewhat repetitious. These scenes are not helped by the quality, or lack thereof, of the special effects. To be quite frank, the plethora of severed heads found in this film does not exactly represent Tom Savini’s most convincing work. While most of the murder scenes are played appropriately, nastily straight, the killing of Brad Dourif’s character is handled with a jokiness that is in jarring contrast to the overall tone of the film as a whole. The other main problem is that Trauma gives us not one but two instances of talking decapitated heads – and anyone who’s read my review of Omega Doom will know how I feel about that. Now, a moving decapitated head I might be willing to go along with, but talking---no, and no, and NO!!

Having said all this, and conceded that Trauma is far from Argento’s best work, I have to confess that I liked this film a lot more than I expected to (one of the positive side effects of almost uniformly negative reviews), and that it grew on me as it went along. As you might anticipate, the "head hunter" is a psychopath who got that way by suffering through an extremely traumatic event (the film’s title does not only refer to its heroine). While this event is perhaps not particularly realistic, it is spectacularly horrible; and it is not at all difficult to believe that someone might indeed be driven insane by such an experience. Moreover, the revelation of this back-story makes a second viewing of the film imperative. While many gialli fall apart upon closer inspection, I found that this one benefits greatly from hindsight. For one thing, the viewer is then in a position to relish the skilful sleight of hand that Argento uses to misdirect his audience. Again as in Deep Red, the plot of Trauma turns upon someone seeing something critical without realising what it is that they’ve seen. In addition, once the viewer knows what the killings are "about", the grim purpose of each ritualised facet of the killings becomes apparent (kudos to Argento for finding a legitimate excuse for filling the film with atmospheric thunderstorms – there is a reason why most of the murders take place on the proverbial "dark and stormy night"); while such unnerving visual touches as a French Revolution scene made from children’s toys may also be more fully appreciated. The other real benefit of re-watching this film (although I probably shouldn’t say so) is that once the motivation for the killings is clear, and we understand just how richly all the victims deserve their fates, it’s possible to sit back and simply enjoy the murders without feeling guilty about it.

Overall (and not surprisingly), Trauma is at its best when it is most Italian. One aspect of the film that struck me as particularly un-American is the subplot involving the child Gabriel, who discovers that he is living next door to the killer; and whose involvement in the story’s grisly climactic sequence I’m quite surprised was allowed to stand. Other scenes that linger in the memory are those which occur in the Faraday psychiatric hospital: a murder taking place before a patient’s uncomprehending eyes (he smiles and waves as the killer leaves); or David’s nightmare journey through a horde of accidentally released and distraught inmates, one of whom’s cries of "You did it! You did it!" reverberate with the viewer as they do with David and Aura. The memory/nightmare sequence triggered when Aura is forced by Dr Judd to take drugs is inventive, while the highlight of the film as a whole is probably the moment when David, convinced that Aura has drowned herself, plunges into a moonlit lake to search for her body – a visually stunning scene that seems to have been intended for a different movie. (Another image that stays with me, although I’m sure I couldn’t say why, is a shot of an egg slithering out of its shattered shell and off the edge of a bench.) The automatic garrotting device (or "noose-o-matic", as Tom Savini calls it) is not only a wonderfully gruesome concept, but since it requires no physical strength, its use as the murder weapon is a particularly clever way of disguising whether the killer – of whom (surprise!) we see little more than a pair of black leather gloves - is a man or a woman. (On this point, it did strike me as odd that the screenplay makes no attempt at all to set Aura up as a potential suspect as well as a potential victim.)

Trauma is notable for being far more character driven than most of Argento’s films, the director having been roundly criticised over the years for caring more about his spectacular set-pieces than he does about his actors or his plot (the irony being, of course, that when he does sacrifice his visuals for character development, as he does here or, to take another example, in The Cat O’ Nine Tails, he’s generally criticised for that, too). Although David and Aura are much younger than the usual Argento protagonists (which may indeed be a concession to the American audience), in other ways they fit right in with their cinematic predecessors. David, for instance, is a graphic artist; while it is mentioned that anorexics are often the "bright, artistic" kind. (I sincerely hope, however, that Argento didn’t make Aura an anorexic because someone told him they were "artistic".) As is generally the case in Argento’s films, David finds himself enmeshed in a mystery almost by accident, his instinctive rescuing of the suicidal Aura propelling him directly into a nightmare from which, drawn ever deeper as he is by both his fascination with the case itself and his growing feelings for the girl, he may not escape with his life. Christopher Rydell gives quite a likeable performance as David, one helped along by the time spent on the development of his relationship with the troubled and troubling Aura. David’s increasingly self-destructive grief when he believes that Aura has committed suicide (a sequence that explicitly references Vertigo) is genuinely touching. As Aura, Asia Argento has the difficult and occasionally alienating task of spending most of her screentime in either tears or hysterics. However, considerable care is taken to make the audience understand exactly what the girl has been and is going through, and it is impossible not to feel for her. This was Asia’s first outing as her father’s heroine/victim/muse, and she acquits herself creditably, making the audience share Aura’s suffering and vulnerability. At the same time, there is something disturbing about watching the actress being put in so many nightmarish situations and knowing that the person responsible is her own father. Still more worrisome is the brief scene in which the girl appears topless. Asia has spoken in interview about how uncomfortable shooting that scene made her, and I’m not surprised: the shot is utterly gratuitous. (That said, what Asia suffers in Trauma is nothing compared to what she would later go through in The Stendahl Syndrome; nor indeed to what was dished out to her mother, Daria Nicolodi, in films such as Opera) However, the upshot of all of this is that we care what happens to both Aura and David, and that certainly isn’t true of the central characters of every giallo. Thus, while no-one could claim that Trauma is a great film, and many might baulk at calling it a good one, it is nowhere near as bad as has been generally claimed. At the very least, it has the merit of being a serious horror film, which these days is a rarity indeed; and in any case, Argento-lite is better than no Argento at all.