After Two Evil Eyes / Due occhi diabolici (1990), Dario Argento took a second stab at establishing an entry into the American film market with Trauma, a part Hitchcockian, part giallo thriller, with a possible supernatural undercurrent - the spirit of Nicholas - kept fuzzy straight to the end. Added into the mix is anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder that affected Argento's niece, Anna Ceroli, and prompted the director to design some thriller around the disease.
It was a well intentioned attempt to integrate a serious social issue within a thriller framework, but it doesn't sufficiently enhance the main character of Aura Petrescu (Asia Argento), a Romanian-American teen who struggles to find her own identity after witnessing the decapitation of her parents during a rainy night following an aborted séance conducted by mother Adriana (Piper Laurie).
Aura's dilemma is further aggravated by Dr. Judd, who tries to find Adriana's killer by coercing Aura with psychotropic berries (always fresh and delicious in his office humidor!) to joggle her memory when not keeping her restrained in the same psychiatric clinic tied to the killer's past.
Although shot with an $11 million budget, and larded with some wonderful American character actors, Trauma is a very slow, meandering mystery that becomes deadly dull whenever the killer's trademark weapon – the noose-o-matic – isn't slicing off someone's head.
The plotting is tiresome, the budding relationship between the sixteen year-old teen and news station intern David Parsons (Christopher Rydell, son of director Mark Rydell) a bit unnerving (never mind Asia's topless scene), and Asia herself, well, can't act; when not delivering spastic emotional reactions, she seems half asleep from a mounting period of severe sleep deprivation, and strives for a natural performance that's clumsily moderated.
This was her first time being directed by her famous father (he had previously produced Demoni 2 / Demons 2 in 1986, and The Church / La Chiesa in 1989), and it's clear at 17 she was an extremely novice actress who needed another hunk of time to work with a greater variety of directors and actors, even though she was in good company in scenes with Frederic Forrest (Apocalypse Now), who went a little cuckoo by enunciating every word of dialogue; and Piper Laurie (Carrie), who delivers a zesty, over-the-top performance as Aura's mum.
As author Alan Jones (Profondo Argento) explains in his excellent and fact-filled commentary track, Trauma's genesis originally began with Dario Argento wanting to work again with Gianni Romoli, co-writer of the Argento-produced La Setta / The Sect (1991). After their initial project, The Returners, failed to mature, he instructed Romoli to run with the idea of using anorexia nervosa plus heavy gore for another script originally titled Moving Guillotine, then Hour's Enigma, and later nicknamed “Deeper Red.”
After Freudian revisions by T.E.D. Klein (whatever happened to T.E.D.?) plus trims to the level of gore, the film's financing and production elements fell into place. For all of Trauma's flaws (including the finale, which leaves it open as to whether a young character is poised to become a future serial killer), it's a luxuriously shot film with superb Steadicam photography, and some finely detailed production design and set décor.
Also of note is Pino Donaggio's largely orchestral score, which is mostly successful in evoking a classical, Herrmannesque veneer after the composer had written several derivative orchestral-synth scores for low budget drivel like Meridian (1990). There's also Tom Savini's effective gore, which includes Brad Dourif's spectacular decapitation by freight elevator, and a montage of Dourif's airborne head patterned by Argento after Madeleine Elster's nightmare in Vertigo (1958).
Author Jones also explains the no-win situation that had Argento trying to craft a thriller to please American audiences, and the various contradictions that emerged when a co-producer fiddled with the editing, and never managed to get the best possible results to ensure a box office hit.
That raises an interesting point about European and Asian directors with very distinct styles whose first efforts in America were treated as works in need of tweaking, or worse; whether it's Argento, George Sluizer (directing the maladjusted English remake of his original Dutch The Vanishing), Ole Bornedal (directing the ineptly sanitized remake of his own Danish version of Nightwatch) or John Woo (Hard Target), it's clear American producers can sometimes ruin or radically tone down the style and impact that each respective director is known for.
That's less evident in Trauma, but fans expecting the doses of gore typical of Argento's prior work – even in Two Evil Eyes – will be disappointed, even though the lack of detailed decapitations by the neck slicing device (the noose-o-matic ) enhances the film's Hitchcockian tenor, and makes the excepted gore more potent.
Trauma has its share of converted admirers and hard detractors, but both parties will find Jones commentary quite elucidating, including details of early casting choices, Piper's Laurie's pickiness, the lackluster “Ruby Red” vocal meant to be the film's anthem and possible hit single, and Argento's gimmicky camera tricks (like that infamous fluttering butterfly POV) stemming from his experimentation in TV commercials (in this case, from a Johnson Wax ad), although Jones remains as baffled as we are as to why the film's End Credits begin with some chick swaying to an onscreen reggae band that has no relation to the film whatsoever.
Anchor Bay's DVD features a very clean transfer of the ‘scope film, and the surround sound mix contains some very aggressive shot effects, in addition to ominous, low-frequency drones that make one feel a big storm is always on the horizon.
In addition to the commentary track and Savini's own behind-the-scenes makeup footage (underscored with original score cues), there's a deleted scene gallery that contains very minor dialogue bits from a slightly longer Italian edit.
Shots from the English language scenes bookend the Italian footage (with English subtitles), and the deleted material is converted from a soft-focus, anamorphic PAL video master. Of the extra footage, only David and Aura's hotel check-in is of interest because it gives the couple's odd relationship more edge when David explains to the clerk that Aura is his sister. Sure she is…
Like Anchor Bays' DVD of The Card Player / Il Cartaio, there's a lengthy interview featurette directed by Perry Martin, with the director (in Italian, with English subtitles), and besides expected comments on the script, his niece's disease, the amusing creation of the noose-o-matic, and his cast, there's also Argento's contrasting views on working with American crews, and their work ethic he attributes to their regarding filmmaking as a privilege instead of a straight job.
This title is available separately, and as part of the 2008 tin boxed set, 5 Films by Dario Argento, which includes Tenebre, Phenomena (1985), Trauma, Il Cartaio / The Card Player (2004), and Do You Like Hitchcock? / Ti piace Hitchcock?
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan