Dario Argento’s Trauma (DVD)

A new dimension of fear.

Italian horror maestro Dario Argento came to America (Minnesota, to be exact) in 1993 in the hopes of reaching the Western audience in a big way with Trauma, a mixture of murder mystery, slasher horror, and serious themes of addiction and anorexia.

While driving home one day, David (Christopher Rydell, Flesh and Bone), a graphic designer and recovering addict, sees a young girl on the edge of a bridge, possibly about to jump to her death. He rescues the girl, named Aura (Asia Argento, the director’s daughter, Scarlet Diva), who is also an addict and an anorexic. The two are suddenly separated, though, when Aura is reunited with her oddball parents (Piper Laurie, Twin Peaks, and Dominque Serrand, The Usual). It’s a busy night for the family, because Aura’s mom is holding a séance, which is interrupted by “The Headhunter”—a serial killer who beheads victims with an electric cutting wire.

With no one else to turn to, Aura reunites with David, fearful that she will be the Headhunter’s next victim. Aura also needs protection from some suspicious medical professionals and their malicious attempts to “cure” her. Now, David and Aura try to piece together clues to the killer’s identity, all while hiding out from the authorities and dealing with their own personal demons.

What can be said about Dario Argento that hasn’t already been said? Some movie fans love the dark, bloody thrills of his films, but for others, they’re either too slow or too derivative of other works. He has a reputation for making overly gory films, yet many of his works lean toward the psychological horror that plays on audiences’ imaginations. So, for me, stepping back and attempting to look at Argento’s work as a whole, it appears that he’s an “in between” horror director. This is because his style falls somewhere in between the blood n’ guts slasher subgenre and the more high-minded horror flicks popular in the 90s such as The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en. Argento uses elements from both types of films without stepping over the line from one to the other. This makes his work unique, but not for all tastes.

“Not for all tastes” also describes Trauma quite nicely. The tone of the movie jumps around from time to time. It begins in a fairly normal setting, but the séance scene is more of the baroque style of Argento’s earlier films. When the action moves to a hospital setting, the story preys on fears of medicine and surgery. If you’re in an Argento film, places like clinics, hospitals and boarding schools are not nice places for you to be. In these settings, well-meaning “professionals” who claim they’re “trying to help” are likely up to no good, and that’s the case here. Then the movie progresses into murder mystery territory with David and Aura tracking down and interviewing suspects. All the while, a black-gloved figure—another staple of an Argento film—sneakily beheads victim after victim, often with close-ups of the wire slowly slicing into a person’s neck. While all this is going on, there’s a subplot about a young boy who believes something sinister is happening in the house next door, which eventually turns into a dark and morbid take on Home Alone.

Moving in and out of mostly mundane settings, Argento finds plenty of times to pull out the visual flourishes. The hospital scenes are the visual peak of the film, in which steadicam shots zip up and down hallways, capturing all the chaos happening around the characters. Indoor scenes tend to have flat, drab colors, while outdoor scenes are bright and lush with color. This of course represents Aura’s state of mind, how she desires freedom over being trapped inside four walls for the rest of her life.

Trauma was one of Asia Argento’s earliest roles, and the first time she had been directed by her famous father. Although she’s proven herself a capable (and lovely) actress, perhaps she was too young at the time to carry such a complicated role. Aura not only suffers from drug addiction and an eating disorder, but she also has issues with her parents, she’s dealing with the deaths of people close to her, and she’s afraid that a psycho is out to chop her noggin off. That’s a lot to ask of any actress, much less one as inexperienced as she was at the time. That’s not to say her performance is terrible, but she never quite reaches the dramatic heights the script calls for.

As David, all Christopher Rydell is required to do is act hunky and heroic, which he does well, but he too gets a moment to shine when his character goes off the deep end, so to speak, in a scene that scared away many “big-name” actors, allegedly because they were concerned about how it might affect their image. Piper Laurie doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but she’s as excellent as always.

A better understanding of the ins and outs of Trauma can be found in the disc’s commentary track by author and Argento expert Alan Jones. Here, Jones reveals the changes the director made to his signature style in the hopes of appealing to an American audience. This meant a more down-to-Earth setting and cutting back somewhat on the gore. Argento considered these choices as risk-taking, something he wanted to do with the film. His fans, though, wanted more of the same, and the film was not well-received at the time. This information-packed commentary also reveals that the “Asia” in Asia Argento is pronounced “Ah-zee-ah,” and that Dario would prefer it if we all pronounce the film’s title as “Trauw-ma,” not “Trah-ma.”

The movie is presented in its original widescreen image, and although the visuals are not as elaborate as some of Argento’s other efforts, the picture is clean with little to no defects. The 5.1 surround track has the sound effects sometimes muffling the actors’ lines, but the audio is terrific during the rainy scenes. What is it about rain that brings out the best in surround sound? For other extras, there’s a brief featurette, an on-the-set interview with gore god Tom Savini about his special effects work, a handful of deleted scenes, a poster gallery, a Dario Argento bio, and trailers for other films of his.

Just as Argento’s work falls in between suspense and gore, this film too is an “in between.” It’s in between the classics that put him on the map and the new sensibilities he was developing. It has the blood and the gloominess we expect from him, but it also puts an emphasis on drama and character interaction not seen in some of the wilder horror movies out there. Suspense/horror junkies will probably enjoy it, and I’d recommend a rental for anyone else curious.

Although Dario Argento tried something new with this film, he was smart enough not to stray too far from his roots. Anchor Bay should be applauded for such a nice presentation on DVD, especially the excellent commentary.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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