Asia stars as Aura Petrescu, an anorexic teenager whose suicidal attempt at leaping off a bridge is interrupted by David Parsons (Christopher Rydell). The authorities spot Aura when the intrigued David attempts to take her out for a quick bite to eat, and despite her cries, Aura is returned home to the Romanian parents she'd moments earlier claimed were dead. She has little time to spend with them -- a seance channels the spirit of a recently murdered woman who claims her killer is in the room, sending Aura's parents darting off into the woods. Aura takes off after them and stumbles upon a horrific sight -- in front of a pair of lifeless corpses stands a killer holding her parents' severed heads. Aura seeks out David's help, and although she doesn't understand why, there appears to be some connection between her and the madman using some strange mechanical device to lop off the heads of a number of the city's medical workers.
Trauma is nearly as limp and lifeless as the decapitated corpses that litter the film. For one, the visual artistry that defines Argento's work is largely absent. Each of his movies has a handful of unforgettable shots -- the bloodied corpse hanging from the skylight in Suspiria or Jennifer Connelly unconsciously drawing a mammoth swarm of insects to her boarding school in Phenomena, to name a couple -- but his direction in Trauma seems considerably less inspired. The use of a fish-eye lens in the expected Steadicam-driven P.O.V. shots leaves Trauma also saps away the timeless look so many of his films have.
Despite having Tom Savini contributing the special effects, the kill scenes are primarily straightforward and not especially bloody. Because of the killer's use of a moving guillotine -- a power tool with a steel wire, basically -- the bulk of them are virtually indistinguishable from one another. One of the murderer's rare attempts to liven up the killing spree somewhat involves shoving a head in the path of a descending elevator, and the execution of this effect borders on embarrassing. It's a disappointment to have a name like Savini attached to a movie with severed heads this unconvincing.
The primary cast members do a decent job, and it comes as little surprise that Asia Argento is the stand-out. Christopher Rydell comes across as nice enough and fits comfortably into the role of the flawed hero, although he seems to struggle when he's supposed to most heavily emote. Piper Laurie's expectedly fantastic, although I didn't get that she was supposed to be Romanian until that was expressly spelled out for me. Much of the rest of the cast, especially the bit players, vary from profoundly awful to dinner theater-grade overacting.
Trauma is a thriller without any thrills. The movie's almost entirely unable to build any tension or suspense, which isn't entirely surprising given the less inspired direction, its at least somewhat unremarkable cast, and its unengaging story. Having a severed head attempt to whisper a killer's name...a seance where a spirit boasts that she knows the identity of the killer but never gets around to saying who it is...it just feels like a ridiculous tease. The movie tries to be too many things to too many people, resulting in a compromised, unsatisfying film. In bringing the giallo to America, Argento has dispensed with the elaborate murder sequences and stunning photography that have earned him his fanbase, yet it's still not conventional enough to appeal to a large American audience.
That's not to say that Trauma is entirely devoid of anything worthwhile -- it's just that it feels so ordinary, a word I'd never want to attribute to someone as endlessly creative as Dario Argento. There are some wonderful touches -- for one, I couldn't help but smirk during a scene where a character is butchered in front of a mental patient who politely waves when the killer is finished with his handiwork. Some of the most beautiful imagery comes in the film's last twenty minutes, after the killing spree has come to a close, such as when David fumbles through a room filled with thin white sheets. The revelation of the murderer's motivation is also deeply effective. I just wish there had been more moments like these throughout the entire film.
Profondo Argento author Alan Jones states in the audio commentary on this DVD that Argento's films often require multiple viewings to be fully appreciated, and he's grown more fond of Trauma after seeing it several times. Maybe my estimation of Trauma will also take a turn in the coming years, but based on this initial viewing, I find it difficult to recommend with any real enthusiasm. Those who are more familiar with the movie may be intrigued by the claim on the packaging that Trauma is being presented uncut and fully restored for the first time, but from all accounts, it's the same English cut that Argento fans have seen for more than a decade now.
Video: Despite the mislabeled packaging, this anamorphic widescreen DVD release of Trauma is presented in the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The quality's somewhat variable -- at times, particularly in tighter shots, it's rather impressive, boasting beautifully saturated colors and an above-average level of detail. For the most part, fine detail is lacking, and a number of its wider shots are softer and less distinct. The source material's clean, free of any noticeable wear or speckling, and some film grain is expectedly present. Lackluster. This DVD is reportedly misflagged, introducing a slew of nasty artifacts on some progressive scan players. Whiggles.com has a detailed comparison of this R1 release with Trauma DVDs from other regions, for anyone who's curious.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (448Kbps) is similarly unimpressive. The film's dialogue is intelligible (aside from the stray garbled delivery from Asia Argento), but a fair amount of it sounds flat, sometimes as if the mics were just a bit too far away from the cast. Neither the forgettable score nor the sound effects carry much of a punch, lacking the sort of visceral energy a suspense film needs. The six channel remix doesn't come across as shoehorning in sounds to fill every speaker, although some attempts, particularly a fatal car crash late in the film, sound awkward. Listenable but bland. A Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack (192Kbps) is also provided, and although there are no subtitles, the DVD does include English closed captions.
Supplements: Trauma is one of those odd cases where I didn't particularly enjoy the movie but found myself really engaged by its extras. I greatly enjoyed the featurette "Love, Death, and Trauma", which spends eighteen and a half minutes with Dario Argento. He comments on his familial connection to the movie's anorexic angle as well as an encounter strikingly similar to that of David and Aura. Argento also notes the toll playing an anorexic had on Asia in their first movie working together, and he comments at length about some of the other recognizable names in the cast as well as his reteaming with Tom Savini. He also offers a very welcome explanation about the movie's noose-o-matic and even briefly notes how he thinks Trauma fits into his body of work. A wonderful interview, and one I actually wouldn't have minded being a good bit longer, really. The featurette is presented in anamorphic widescreen and is in Italian with English subtitles. "On Set with Tom Savini" is an eight minute collection of home video footage, offering a very nice behind-the-scenes glimpse at Trauma's make-up and effects work.
My favorite of the extras is the audio commentary with Profondo Argento author Alan Jones, a writer whose familiarity with Argento's work isn't just scholarly -- he's spent a great deal of time on the director's sets, including Trauma. It's a deeply detailed discussion, one that makes its way through the entire length of the film with hardly any pauses, gaps, or repetition. The commentary covers a wide variety of topics, from the aborted projects that were tossed around before settling on this idea, the compromises made in Argento's first American production, the benefits and detriments of father and daughter working together, the director's reluctance to be considered an auteur on the set, and the initially negative reception to the film. Jones also rattles off the names of some of the actors considered for the movie -- James Spader, John Cusack, Tim Roth, and Bridget Fonda -- along with an unfilmed cameo in which Tom Savini would have been decapitated. An excellent commentary and an essential listen.
There are four and a half minutes of deleted scenes, presented in anamorphic widescreen and mostly in Italian, accompanied by burned-in English subtitles. Gorehounds needn't bother -- there's nothing gruesome here. The DVD also includes an extensive poster and still gallery, consisting of fifty-two images in total. Rounding out the extras are an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer, a lengthy Dario Argento bio, and plugs for a handful of other Anchor Bay releases, all of which Argento had some hand in making. An included insert has the poster art on one side and a list of the DVD's twenty chapter stops on the other.
Conclusion: Trauma is an unremarkable suspense/thriller, much more noteworthy for the talent listed in its credits than the movie itself. Even casual Argento fans should still find this DVD worth a rental, though, even if its extras are more compelling than the movie itself. Rent It.