Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fixated on TRAUMA [Argento-thon]

Trauma (1993)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Anchor Bay DVD (R1)
Rating: 7 / 10

Questionable psychology and psuedo-science are some of Dario Argento's favorite things. In the realm of psychology, he seems to be a huge fan of throwing a Freudian fixation on top of his killer's psyche as an explanation for their impetus to murder. Following an exposure to some horrifying event, they're obsessed with recreating and reliving the conditions of whatever drove them off the deep end. After breaking from the usual with his short homage to Edgar Allen Poe in Two Evil Eyes, Argento decided to return to form and head back to the realm of Freud in what's probably his most overtly psychology-focused film: Trauma.

First off, anyone who missed the murderous black gloves in The Black Cat can rejoice, because they're back in full force here. The film opens with the brutal murder of a chiropractor with some sort of bizarre mechanized garrote. In case you were wondering, those paper cutouts of the French Revolution that appeared right after the opening credits weren't just for show; decapitation is the name of the game in Trauma.

After the murder, we're introduced to a young girl named Aura who's trying to commit suicide by throwing herself from a bridge. Thankfully, she's rescued by a young artist named David (Christopher Rydell). Aura, played by Dario's daughter Asia, is clearly crazy, and we find out later that she's anorexic, which in this film is treated like some sort of exotic mental illness. Aura's promptly snatched up by a couple of suited men sent by her parents, and brought home where she'll presumably be locked away again.

What follows is a flurry of off-the-wall events. Aura's parents have invited a curious cast of characters over to have a seance. They're hoping to determine the identity of the killer who's running loose - the same one who killed the chiropractor. After Aura's mother channels a spirit claiming the killer is in the room, a storm hits and knocks the power out, Aura breaks loose, chaos ensues, and Aura's parents are murdered. Aura flees back to the city, only to run into - you guessed it - David. This'll repeat throughout the film: David and Aura's paths are constantly intersecting and diverging. Whenever Aura's around, things are pretty interesting. Asia Argento is definitely one of the more fascinating parts of this film, and I can't quite place why. Maybe it's her acting, which is just off enough to make me wonder if she intended it to be this way. Maybe it's the creepy thought of Dario directing his own daughter through all these morbid events. Most likely, it's because she can scream bloody murder and make me believe it. Sorry David, you're just sort of boring compared to Asia.

Now David and Aura set out to discover the identity of the murder, while navigating their emerging feelings for each other (which are complicated by David's understandably pissed girlfriend). Meanwhile, we also get some pretty great scenes focusing on the killer at home, all shot in a way that conceals his/her true identity. This person is clearly motivated by something - s/he only kills when it rains, favors the strange auto-garrote as a method of killing, and knocks off people with a common past one by one. Our lens into the killer's lair is a young neighbor boy who's just a little too nosy. As you might expect, people who see too much in an Argento film end up playing a role in the denouement, whether they want to or not. (And while we're mentioning Argento tropes, if you're watching for unusual POV shots, there's one here from the perspective of a butterfly that the kid is trying to catch).

Keep those binoculars away from the neighbor's windows, kid...
especially since your neighbor is a serial killer.
While the plot compiles tons of classic Argento themes, the transition to filming in the U.S. also brings along the somewhat diluted atmosphere that started with Two Evil Eyes. As a former Minnesotan I really enjoyed that the film was set in Minneapolis/St. Paul, but again, this drastically subverts the distinctly European flavor you tend to get in gialli. More than anything, this has the feel of a 90's horror film, reinforced by an abundance of practical effects, slightly goofy kill sequences, more traditional soundtrack, and even a touch of green-screen.

Fun Fact: Decapitated heads continue to scream for up to 10 seconds
after they're removed from the body.
Still, there is lots to enjoy. It's like Argento took all his favorite plot devices and blew them up by a factor of 10. Just a short list would include: berries that induce hallucinations of the past, some extremely warped motherhood, unsuspecting witnesses being drawn into twisted killings, not one, but two psychologically damaged characters, and a fixation on a past event that is absolutely bonkers when it's revealed. It's manically uneven in a lot of places, and can't ever establish a truly serious tone, but I found it thoroughly entertaining.

The Good:

Asia Argento. She's fascinatingly crazy and only becomes more so in Argento's later films. This isn't her debut by any means - she'd starred in a number of previous films including The Church, directed by Michele Soavi and written by Dario (which has just jumped to the top of my watch list).

The overblown ending is just the icing on the cake to all the insanity that's preceded it.

Playing spot-the-landmarks in Minneapolis / St. Paul is a lot of fun (although this might not have the same appeal for you).

The Bad:

Dario filming Asia in the shower is more than a little creepy.

Chris Rydell just isn't that interesting or compelling next to Asia.

The beginning of the film is wildly uneven, and takes about half an hour to find its groove.

...the hell?

What's up with the Reggae band at the end?

Decapitated heads are very chatty in this movie.

The verdict:

This one is definitely worth seeking out if you haven't seen it. For those purists who deride it as somewhat silly, I'd invite you to rethink Deep Red or Phenomena. Remember the walking doll? Remember the killer monkey?


  1. I enjoy this one, though it took me a while to warm up to it at first. It's rather insane! I just wish the lead was more interesting. As you said, Asia picks up the slack. She's pretty great in everything!

    1. Yeah, it definitely takes a while to get going. I think I'd enjoy it more thoroughly in a second watch. So glad that Asia sticks around for several more of Argento's films!