Well, here we are, folks. I wrote in my review of Opera that many considered that film to be Dario Argento’s last good movie, although I had also read that Trauma had its fans as well. I was pleasantly surprised by the director’s “Black Cat” segment of Two Evil Eyes, so I was looking forward to Trauma with some reservations but an open mind. On the whole, this 1993 film (released just a year after the director’s cameo in Innocent Blood) has a lot of meritorious elements in its favor and is a decent movie, but throughout the run time I kept thinking to myself, “Oh, so this is where we’re going now.” Although the giallo elements work, for the most part, the movie’s most memorably quality is blandness, although how much of that is intentional or not is unclear.
The film follows Aura (Asia Argento, in one of her earliest film roles and her first time being directed by her father), a sixteen year old girl who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital where she was undergoing treatment for anorexia. She meets David (Christopher Rydell), a TV news graphic artist and former heroin addict, and he befriends her after assuming that her IV feeding tube scars are track marks. Aura is soon recaptured by social services, however, and returned to the home of her parents, renowned mystics who are hosting a séance. Aura’s mother Adriana (Piper Laurie) claims that a spirit named Nicholas has hijacked the ceremony and is claiming that the serial decapitator The Headhunter is present. Aura watches from an upstairs window as her mother and father flee into the rainy night and runs after them, only to discover that The Headhunter has killed them both. She finds David and asks for his help, placing a strain on his relationship with news anchor Grace (Laura Johnson), who eventually calls the hospital and reports Aura so that she is forced to return there. Meanwhile, David’s investigation leads him to learn that (spoilers through the end of this paragraph) The Headhunter’s victims were all medical professionals in attendance on the night that Adriana was giving birth to her second child, a son to be named Nicholas; the doctor (Brad Dourif in what amounts to an extended cameo) insisted on pushing ahead with inducing labor despite inclement weather and intermittent power outages, and when he is startled by a lightning strike with a scalpel in his hand, he accidentally decapitated the baby. The nurses present convince him to use ECT on Adriana to erase her memory of the event, and her husband is complicit in their cover up. Of course, as in so many of Dario Argento’s movies, this repressed memory eventually resurfaces and the murderer seeks out vengeance.
In an interview on the DVD of La Terza madre, Asia Argento discussed the fact that working as a director had given her new insights as an actress, and it shows in the difference between her presence here and there. She is the weak performative link in this movie, but the film’s flaws are not restricted solely to her amateur abilities. Piper Laurie goes over the top here, as she often does, but Adriana Petrescu lacks the grounding that made Margaret White function so well as a sinister mother figure. Brad Dourif’s barely present on screen (and kudos to the editor of the film’s trailer for excising any reference to him, although the fact that his name appears at the top of the DVD box ruins that reveal), and his appearance ends with one of the worst uses of chroma-key effects I’ve seen in my life. That sequence stands out as particularly terrible, especially given how effective the rest of the movie’s decapitated heads, created by effects genius Tom Savini, are. It’s also strange to me that no one in the film seems to have a problem with the adult David’s romantic and ultimately sexual relationship with teenaged Aura is, other than Grace, whose issues are painted as being the result of jealousy rather than concern for the fact that a sixteen year old may be being taken advantage of by a much older beau. The film’s score also leaves much to be desired, especially in the sequences in which the young boy who lives next door to the killer’s home (Cory Garvin) sneaks into the murder house while chasing a butterfly; they feel more like unused tracks from Dennis the Menace than something created with the intent of increasing tension. The killer’s weapon of choice, a kind of bladed garrote, is a neat invention, but there’s too much tonal inconsistency present throughout, and the homages to Argento’s earlier work (especially Profondo rosso) only serve to demonstrate how much this film pales in comparison. I’m also unclear as to why Argento chose to shoot this picture in what he called “featureless Minnesota,” given that it adds to the overall banality of the film’s cinematography, especially given his masterful use of classic architecture and depth of field in his earlier work.
Having said that, this is not a bad movie, just an unmemorable one. For an Argento completist, it’s a movie that I would recommend over Inferno or Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and the mystery, despite being at times incoherent, works well in spite of its implausibility and absurdity. There are some great visual flourishes as well, especially in Aura’s hallucinatory sequence and in the discovery of the creepy nursery filled with gauzy screens. There’s a laudable attempt to trace the relationships between media, family, and psychological disorders here; it’s misguided and dated in its discussion, but I appreciate that there was an attempt to address this issue, even if the conceptualizations of the root cause of eating disorders is somewhat facile. The scenes set in the mental hospital are also effectively unnerving, even if that trope smacks of ableism when viewed through a modern lens. More than anything, I can tell that this is a movie that suggests a sharp downturn in the director’s work from here on out, even if it is decent within itself.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond