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Dario Argento's Trauma (1993)
25th Jul 05
A mysterious killer dressed in black is decapitating health professionals while desperate annorexic Asia Argento drags her new lover into the spider's web.
Review Trauma sees Argento revisiting the giallo genre with this slightly uneven offering from 1993. Starring his daughter Asia, it follows her constant state of suicidal transit as she is pursued by her captors from an anorexic clinic (The Farraday Clinic) during which she is saved from a suicide attempt by David (Christopher Rydell). He eventually falls in love with her while getting himself much too deeply involved in not only her parents’ murders, but other macabre killings, all being executed by a figure in black (for a change) who’s preferred method of killing is decapitation with a wire saw, but only after a hammer blow to the spine which paralyses the victims whilst they are still aware of what is happening to them. Nasty.
Throughout the course of the plot we find out that everyone being decapitated at the hands of this mysterious killer is connected through the health profession as well as an unfortunate clinical incident which occurred many years ago. We know that the killer was affected somehow by the incident, but have no idea who they are, or what happened which was so traumatising for the killer to go around sawing heads off.
If Dario Argento spent half as much time having scene rehearsals with his acting ensemble as he does planning his elaborate style signatures, his work would be infinitely more rewarding. As Trauma is an American production from an Italian director, he no longer has the bad dubbing safety net to protect the reputations of his actors. So don’t go protecting his reputation by blaming dodgy dubbing for his previous efforts’ shortcomings – he can’t direct actors, simple as that.
When we sit down to watch any Argento film, we know we have to leave something at the door and be prepared to overlook the acting quality, but with some of his films, such as Suspiria, Cat O’ Nine Tails and Deep Red, this is relatively easy to do. Trauma features Argento offspring Asia as an anorexic 16 year old and her performance is strong enough, even if she walks around as if stoned on high quality mind-bending puff – this suits the character of Aura. Unfortunately however her screen love interest (Christopher Rydell) doesn’t turn in such a good performance and comes across as a bit of a drip at times.
The legendary Piper Laurie makes the most of her limited screen time as Aura’s domineering mother and turns in a performance that could be described as intimidating although her strange accent and vocal delivery are not always decipherable, but there could be Argento reasoning behind this. Or maybe not. Another welcome addition to the cast is Frederick Forrest who plays the Farraday Clinic’s Managing Director (Dr Judd), who’s involvement in the story is rendered more complex by his professional role. His performance is almost as bizarre as Laurie’s, played with left-of-centre intensity and a neck brace.
By far my favourite aspect of this picture was the Hitchcock-inspired device of using a peeping tom, or in this case a peeping Gabriel – a little boy of about 10 who lives next door to the killer. He sees things he doesn’t understand through the windows of the house and even dares to venture through the windows like a pint-size private detective with a butterfly net. The inclusion of a child into the story works to the film’s overall structure really well as not only does Aura behave like a child, but also the answer to the Argento mystery is directly linked to a child, hinting an overall sense of narrative full-circle.
In terms of splatter-count, Trauma may disappoint some Argento fans even though special effects are carried out by yet another legend involved in the production – the one and only Tom Savini. Don’t get too excited though; these are some of the worst fake heads I’ve seen from Savini and, on the whole, the violence is kept to a minimum. One particular scene does stand out however – when an ex-doctor played by Brad Dourif (yes, Brad is in it!) is noosed by the killer’s wire saw which then gets entangled in his necklace, thus snapping the wire blade. Paralysed, he is dragged for some distance towards an open elevator door where the killer places his head through the gap before pressing the button – chop – as we see Dourif’s crazed expression of fear fall down the shaft in a very cheap effect which I presume only looks retro-cool by accident. This is a fairly typical example of Argento’s violent inventiveness but alas is only rivalled in such terms by the final decapitation scene.
Trauma is definitely worth a look if you’re an Argento fan. The mystery is genuinely intriguing in the true giallo sense and the feeling of uneasiness is suitably enhanced by Pino Donaggio’s intermittently brilliant soundtrack, making Trauma feel at times very Lynchian. It’s quite pacey and doesn’t tend to drag its heels but there’s definitely a sense of something not weighing in as it should. The resolution of the mystery only half-satisfies even though it makes complete sense, while Argento’s throwaway visual flourishes and metaphors can be taken as a matter of individual taste.
Patchy yet engrossing, this may make you wonder why Argento has such a dedicated following. You might need to watch one of his earlier films to remind you.