Sunday, June 9, 2013

Trauma (1993) dir. Dario Argento

Logline: A series of grizzly decapitations has the residents of Minneapolis cowering in their galoshes in fear of a nefarious killer who strikes only when it's raining. The killer's latest dual beheading leaves a teenaged "anorexic," Aura Petrescu (Asia Argento), an orphan. Aura finds safe harbor from institutionalization in the arms and home of a much older journalist, David (Christopher Rydell). Together, the pair attempt to unravel the pattern of the killer's crimes before the end credits roll.

Resting awkwardly among Argento's limper horrors, Trauma suffers most from a lack of ingenuity. Though released exactly two decades after the psycho-sexual Italian giallo thriller reached its apex, the film neglects to update the subgenre for the last decade of the 20th century in any meaningful way. Those few moments that do appear to aspire to represent the surface level cultural trends of the '90s-- like a perplexing closing credits reggae porch jam session with a willowy girl swaying to the music as her hair is blown about-- can't help but feel woefully out-of-touch, not to mention contextually jarring. Considering that Trauma is Argento's first feature-length American production, one would imagine he'd be influenced by that country's contemporary horror scene, but that's not the case: the film is trapped in the sleazy closet of early 1970s Eurohorror, oblivious to the decades of horror filmmaking that had transformed the genre since. The film feels positively old fashion, with the same old type of killer, the same old type of motivation, and the same old creaky psychology in a mystery that hits the same old plot beats. But one would be hard-pressed to call Trauma a deliberate, nostalgic, and reverential throwback to the Golden Yellow Days when one stops to consider the man behind the camera. As the single person most responsible for the giallo's popularity, and with a filmography that features increasingly complex and unique examples of the subgenre up until 1987, Argento settling for Trauma's narrative and stylistic mediocrity is self-plagiarism of the laziest variety. In fact, Argento and his screenwriter, horror author T.E.D. Klein, get no more creative than using Argento's own landmark giallo Deep Red (1975) as this film's basic template (with an splash of  Paolo Cavara's Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971) thrown in for flavor). A seance featuring a medium who discerns the then present killer's identity and is quickly dispatched for possessing this knowledge; a journalist aiding the protagonist in the recovery of a visual memory that cracks the case; a matronly murderess (with past trauma involving her son) and her climactic decapitation. Sound familiar? The small "twists" that Trauma gives to these recognizable story elements (the sexes of the journalist and protagonist are switched around! the medium faked her own death!) hardly disguise the fact that we've seen all of this before, orchestrated with substantially more splattery grace.

All of this said, Trauma isn't a terrible film. It's quite entertaining, actually, though not often in ways that you'd imagine were hoped for. For those who enjoy the cheesier aspects of the these affairs, the film is laden with broad acting (Piper Laurie hams it up perfectly while Asia goes cross-eyed and lead Christopher Rydell bribes a child with an offer to be his best friend), amateur editing (a shot of Asia jumping dangerously off a high roof abruptly cuts to her running, fine and dandy, in the rain), hilarious pre-CGI '90s composite shots (Brad Dourif's decapitation and his gasping head-- from the chin up-- plummeting to the depths below against a green screen), a dreadful silent cartoon score from De Palma's regular composer Pino Donaggio, and curiously creaky practical VFX from the usually skilled Tom Savini (shoddy decapitated mechanical heads with still moving mouths do not scares make). My favorite moments are those containing fallacious bits of pop psychological wisdom concerning anorexia, which Aura is said to suffer from: all anorexics, you know, have unnatural attachments to their mothers and all of them have dreams about their fathers leaning over them in their sleep and planting big wet kisses on them. If you weren't aware of these scientific facts, you should watch more Oprah and Donahue, as one of the film's characters helpfully recommends. The film's cynical presentation of the damage and (ahem) trauma that controlling medical institutions bestow upon otherwise healthy people (see Aura and her mother) suggests that the film has critical aims, but the film's wandering plot tangents and Argento's sloppy, often ludicrous direction prevent any coherent critique of '90s America from emerging.

Make no mistake: this is Argento on the decline. When, in one scene, Aura is force-fed some psychotropic mind berries, Argento is given the perfect opportunity to invest some of his primary color surrealism into the film, but the best he can muster is a translucent ghost ballerina twirling on the ceiling. Granted, seeing him evolve is welcome-- in theory-- but when the result looks like Trauma we can't help but be vaguely disappointed. Because it was made for a meaty-enough estimated budget of seven million dollars, one can't simply lay the film's faults on a lack of funds. Argento seems tired here. Perhaps he was disillusioned with the fact that this sort of been-there-done-that thriller was the only sort of film he could get bankrolled, or perhaps he was beginning to become exhausted with filmmaking in general after two decades of fabulous imagination and productivity. His second collaboration with his daughter Asia, 1996's The Stendhal Syndrome, would find him more focused and less flippant with the giallo material, but even that film is similarly prone to the sloppy production values and style on display in Trauma. In stark contrast to his still-vibrant works of the mid-to-late '80s, Trauma finds the hyper-garish hyperactivity of Argento's fantasy horrors waning. The film's dialogue points to a certain cynicism the filmmakers hold for their entire bloody endeavor: "He only kills when it's raining," one character points out, to which another replies, "Well, stay out of the rain."


  1. I will always have a special place in my heart for Trauma. This film and Phenomena (Creepers at the time) were my introduction to Italian horror when I was a kid. Maybe it's because it is impossible for me to see this without my nostalgic glasses on but I think there's a lot of magic here. There's also a lot of stupid too. The whole anorexic angle is handled with all the sensitivity of boxing gloves soaked in Novocaine.

    1. I can imagine an alternate world in which I'd caught this one earlier on and thus I have more affection for it. But as it stands on Earth Prime, it's just too derivative for me. It's weird and stupid, surely, and that carries some appeal, but it's not quite weird and stupid enough. (Well, maybe stupid enough...)

      Phenomena, however, is my jam. I will watch teen Jennifer Connelly command swarms of insects and befriend razor-wielding chimps any day.

  2. Argento as a director frustrates me immensely. Inarguably, his earliest work is his best, but even his stupid films have flashes of great creativity. My reading of his work is that over the course of his life he became irrevocably trapped into being "Dario Argento" (in quotation marks) which castrated him artistically. I wish he had branched out into completely unrelated and disparate genres eary in his career.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I'm in total agreement with you. The specter of "Dario Argento" has certainly haunted his later work (I'm finding), and those ingrained expectations have clearly sucked a lot of enthusiasm from him as the years wear on. Watching any interview with the man conducted in the last two decades is a depressing venture: he couldn't care less about his lionized past. But even then he persists in baffling me with a film like Sleepless (2001), which seems to be almost cantankerously protecting the reputation of the sort of horror film he has made his name on, as if he still holds some fondness for the genre deep down inside.

      We can only wonder what would have happened if his early comedy-drama The Five Days (1973) had been a hit.