View Full Version : Argento - Trauma

03-10-2003, 05:10 PM
And here is a copy of my Trauma critique. Once again - I posted this on another sites forums (it was not an official, or unofficial review for the site). So it can be used here okay :)

Needless to say - MAJOR SPOILERS!

In for a penny, in for a couple of heads and a piece of wire. Put another way, I sat through Phenomena this morning, writing a fairly lengthy critique of it – and tonight I found myself watching Trauma.

There are three Argento films I just cannot get along with – Phenomena, Trauma and Phantom of the Opera. There is method in my madness – knowing that I would write at least a little something about each of them, it led me to take more time concentrating on the details of what I was about to see.

The fact that I like both of these films a little more than I did before probably speaks to this. Previously, they bored me, or just broke my concentration with their wilder aspects, and I couldn’t get inside them at all. This special effort assignment meant I just had to give them more time.

So – let’s take a brief look at Trauma.


DVD - UK Tartan, Wide screen. Surround Sound 2.0.

Before getting into the details of this film, it is only fair for me to mention one or two little issues I had on the way. I am forever grateful to Tartan for putting this film out, it certainly is a case where any release is better than none. On the other hand, this disc is not much more than a placeholder until a really great release hits.

Tartan films are often criticized for being too dark – well, this one definitely is. I had to crank up the brightness on my TV to make this watchable. I simply do not understand how they could not have read, time and again, that their prints are too damn dark.

Secondly, the sound on this film is pretty bad too. There is only a single time where it was effective. Please, next time lets get a 5.1 track out there.

Plot Summary

An anorexic young woman escapes from a psychiatric clinic and meets a young man who wants to help. She is caught and returned to her parents, who are soon beheaded by a garroting stranger making the rounds about town, apparently striking only when it rains. The orphaned young woman and her new lover launch their own investigation and are endangered when a link is discovered between the victims.

Trauma sits between Opera and The Stendhal Syndrome. The writers credited here are Dario and TED Klein.

The truth however, is that this story is based on a plot by Dario, his long running cohort Franco Ferrini and Gianna Romoli who co-authored Dellamorte Dellamore. I do not know anything about TED Klien, and I’m not sure I want to.

Trauma – a Critique

Trauma opens with a model. This model is of a guillotine which we see behead a toy. At first this is a rather a curious choice of an opening segment. It won’t be long before we understand that this film is full of beheadings, however, why the strange choice of the model?

The answer is revealed much later in the film, during a particularly effective scene in the bedroom of a house (more on this later). This room belongs to Nicholas, the deceased brother of Aura, the female lead. In the scene in the bedroom we get a fleeting glance of a babies crib, some stuffed animals – and low and behold, this children's “toy” standing up against a wall. I have seen this film several times, but this is the first time I have been able to make the connection. Now, I’d have to say it is effective (albeit a strange toy to get for a little baby, oh well.)

Trauma’s world is also a little different from what we’ve seen in the past from Dario. This is because this one was filmed in the US, and Dario did nothing to hide this fact. Actually, it was filmed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The locations are a strange mix, but their American roots introduce a different feel.

The first scene proper is, of course, a good old murder – you know, just to get us settled. I might as well say right up front, all murders in this film are beheadings. Since this is the first time we see one, special credit should go to it.

The victim here is a Chiropractor. The murderer poses as a patient, and there you have a victim. The murder also takes place during a fierce rain and thunderstorm.

There are a couple of things about this scene that really stick out. The first is that the chiropractor has a pet lizard in her office. The killer steals this lizard and keeps it in their house. I was left to puzzle what this lizard thing was all about – what purpose does it play in the film? After seeing the whole thing I can only say it is there only to entice a young boy into the murderers house. It seems a real convoluted way of doing this – but there it goes. Dario often has lizards in his films, so why not here?

If I could leave it at that, I would. But there is one more thing to say about this lizard, it can’t be killed. Or maybe it turns into a zombie lizard. I will explain in a moment.

The second thing about this scene is that it takes place during a rainstorm, with lightning crashing all around. Let’s face it; Dario has a thing for water. Oh sure, there’s water in most films, but Dario always gives it special meaning.

In this film, we have murders that only take place during rainstorms (with one exception, where the rain has to be created by setting off a sprinkler system.) This is a running theme in Dario’s films, and likely I don’t have to say any more about it.

This film also has a scene that echoes the lake swimming sequence in Phenomena. It is thought that Aura, played by Asia Argento, has drowned herself – her love interest, played by Christopher Rydell, goes searching for her. To be honest, this scene does not have the impact as the earlier version, which itself borrows heavily from Inferno, but it is there.

I cannot continue without talking more about this zombie lizard. First, there is a chiropractor with a lizard. The murderer steals the lizard, I simply do not know why. However, it later serves as a vehicle to get a neighbors child to break into the killers house. During this scene, he grabs the lizard, gets scared, and crushes it in his hands – green goop and all. He throws it on the carpet, escapes, and the murderer finds it lying on the carpet. All well and good. Except, the lizard is shown later in the film, when the love interest gets into the house. So, is this a new lizard, the same lizard that has recovered, what? I honestly do not know. It’s just one of those Argento moments that makes your head spin.

The second major scene is often spoken of – it’s the meeting of David Parsons, the love interest, and Aura who is played by Asia Argento. This takes place when he is driving across a bridge, and see’s her climbing over the railings, apparently ready to kill herself.

Stopping his truck, he runs to save her. Despite my best efforts to give this scene every chance I possibly could, I just cannot believe that the take that was used was the best one they shot. Asia is stiff as a board; her lines are dull and bored. David tries hard to inject some energy into the scene, but lines such as, “Stop struggling!” just sound bizarre when Asia has yet to even move!

Of course, Aura follows David to safety. During this sequence, David see’s track marks up her arm, and refers to sharing a past addiction problem. This is a rather strange detour for the film to take. Drugs play a very small part in this film.

Just to explain how the whole tracks in the arm thing works – David has basically confessed a weakness (his only in the film). Later, he thinks Aura has committed suicide, and this leads him back to his drug taking ways. He forges a prescription to get himself some drugs, and is found out by the chemist. Inexplicably, the chemist runs after David and kicks his ass, all very strange behavior for a chemist, but what the hey. It reminds me of Inferno, when the hotdog guy, bored and bothered by screams, goes to silence the poor bookstore owner (I hope he washed that knife afterwards!)

The real problem here is that this sequence comes and goes so fast, you have to wonder why it is there. While David is sitting on the pavement, having been hit by the chemist, we see through his foggy eyes, and spy a blurred image of a woman with a wristband on, walking passed him. Sure enough, this turns out to be the armband that belonged to Aura. Aura’s mother (sorry, she’s the murderer, all revealed later) has taken to wearing it. Was the whole drug taking sequence a convoluted way of introducing this vital, coincidental clue? It seems so.

Aura does not have a drug problem. We find out later that she is anorexic, and has been held at a clinic. She is brought back to the clinic, to disastrous results. While there, we see her laying in bed, tubes into both arms. This is clearly where she got her track marks from – not from illicit drug use. The sympathetic element that initially ties these characters together is therefore broken, reinforcing true love over just plain sympathy. That’s nice, huh?

03-10-2003, 05:11 PM
During the bridge sequences we get our first listen to the soundtrack. Now, if I were in the mood to be flippant I would say that it is an excellent soundtrack – to a different movie! Listen, I want to say something good about the music, I really do, but Pino Donaggio’s music is just ridiculous at times. I just can’t fathom what he was getting at – the music sits on top of the scenes, getting in the way, drawing your attention out from the action. Movie music is not supposed to be so evident that you take your eyes off the actors, this time it is so strange you can’t ignore it.

There are two other music segments that stand out, for different reasons, and they’re not by Pino Donaggio. During the sequence where David thinks Aura has committed suicide, we have something that sounds like Enya, or Clannad. It’s a pretty song for what it is, but I’m not sure what it is doing in the middle of this film.

The second musical interlude is during the end credits (sorry to jump around a bit). For some reason, Dario ends this film by panning the camera around from the murderers house to a reggae band playing live music on their porch – including dancing girl. I cannot explain it, it does not fit anything. This would have made one hell of a weird CD.

Getting back to the plot, David takes Aura for dinner and they talk about their problems. Aura see’s two guys across the street, they are from the clinic, and have been looking for her so they can take her back. They do finally catch up to her, but the whole thing is a bit peculiar, since they are dressed like bankers. How many people tasked with capturing patients would drive around like members of the CIA?

Aura is returned to her parent’s house, and this is when the storyline really begins. Aura’s mother is a psychic, performing séances in her living room. Aura arrives just as her parents are waiting for the people to come so they can do a séance.

In the build up to the séance, we get a first person view of a character walking through the guests. Finally, we see that this view was that of the mother, who takes her place at the table. This is the first clue to the identity of the murderer. At no other time (well, save one when the view is that of a butterfly) do we see through the eyes of anyone else – except the killers.

During the séance, the mother (Adriana) calls for “Nicholas” to help the voices come through. It is not clear at this point who Nicholas is. As the story unfolds, Nicholas turns out to be a son who had died at birth. Dario has really brought this scene into the macabre – a mother using her dead babies spirit to contact the dead.

This is made all the more interesting by the message Nicholas brings – he talks about there being murders, and what’s more, “the killer is……. present!” Well, as you now know, this is perfectly true – the mother is the murderer, being made to confess by her dead son! Very nicely done. Later we learn much of this dialogue is actually a tape recording, set up by the mother.

The séance is a rather clichéd affair. It occurs during a thunderstorm, with crashing rain and branches beating against a window, eventually breaking through. Still – if it works, why break it.

When the branch breaks through the window, the mother takes off running in the yard, followed by her husband. It is not long before Aura follows them.

Suddenly, we arrive at the second murder. We have to enjoy this one, because it will be another 30 minutes (a long time in Argento’s world) before we see anything else like it. Basically, we see Adriana’s husband killed, while she fakes her own demise. We see the mother between flashes of lightning, holding the head of her husband in the air. What makes this scene so effective, is that it also appears as though the mothers head is being held up too, hiding the face of the true killer. You now know this is not the case, but it works well.

Now – the only thing is, if you have two heads being cut off, there must be two bodies somewhere. Sure enough, we have a body for the man, and one for the woman. So – if the mother is alive, who is the woman's body? Well, we never get to know. Aura does say, much later in the film, “it was a neighbors body” – but how realistic is that? Am I to believe that no-one noticed a neighbor being missing?

As I have already said, there is a fierce rainstorm going on during this sequence. This is made more effective by Dario using a technique where he slows down the film, not quite putting things into slow motion, but causing effective rain streaks. It’s nicely done, your eyes see it, but your mind hardly registers how it was achieved.

Sadly, there are few times in this film where you’re left scratching your head. I have mentioned the lizard and the woman’s body as two examples. There are more. At one stage, we see David asleep on his bed. I guess it is a dream, but what you see is blood red streaks crashing down on a white background, with the words “My Head” spoken over and over. He wakes up, the scene goes away. It makes no sense, and I won’t try to make any of it either.

David works for a TV company, doing graphics for the news show. We see some of this in the storyline, but really the only thing it offers up is an explanation of what anorexia is. David’s colleague had seen Donahue (and old US talk show) and was an expert on what it means to have the disease. I think that’s about it, it’s the only relevant tie in with David’s job.

Having just been through Phenomena, there are a couple of scenes both films share. The first I’d mention is when David is talking about Anorexia with his office colleague. He is holding a pen, and drops it. It falls to the floor in slow motion, much like the knitting needle in Phenomena.

The second one is almost more intriguing. The murderers house is next to a house where a young boy lives. The boy will play a small, but important role in the film. He actually has a rather good scene, where he complains to his mother that the woman next door keeps staring at him through his bedroom window. Of course, we know that it’s actually the head of one of the victims sitting on the sideboard – neat stuff. This kid, as small a part as he has, grabs all the best scenes, including eventually putting an end to the murderer.

Anyway, the plot is going to require that this boy get into the murderers house. As already mentioned, he is lured there by the lizard. Just prior to this though, we see the boy playing with a butterfly net. The scene opens with the butterfly flying high over his head – we see this from the point of view of the butterfly, just like Jennifer from Phenomena, where we see from the perspective of a fly. It’s an interesting tie in, probably just a stray cinematic thought left over from Phenomena.

Sadly, no Oscars for the butterfly, since it gets eaten by the lizard. We have seen this before in Inferno. The lizard then runs into the house, the boy follows, boy accidentally kills lizard, lizard comes back to life – cycle complete! I should add, the sounds FX for the lizard are quite bad – it sounds like he’s eating potato chips when he chomps that butterfly.

Actually, there is a long list of animals in this film. We have a lizard, a butterfly, a frog, cat and in the end credits, we hear a dog barking. Being an animal lover, this is great fun. The hardest one to spot is the frog, see if you can find it!

When the child is in the house, we get a very effective scene played out. The murder weapon (I’ll talk about this later) is an electric tool with a wire loop on it. The loop is placed over the head of the victim, a button is pressed, and the head comes off. We know this before the boy gets into the house.

The scene in question shows the boy finding the weapon and placing the wire loop around his neck. For a few tantalizing moments his finger hovers over the switch that turns it on – damning him to certain death. Of course, all is saved, but it’s a scene with real tension.

Since this critique is running in fairly linear to the story, you might wonder where the action has gone. What needs to be noted in this film, is that Dario spends a whole lot more time filling in the back story. This is largely a detective film, albeit amateur sleuths. Rarely has Dario spent this much time building things up. It makes cinematic sense, but I ended up missing the more vital Dario.

It is during the running of these scenes that something occurred to me. Part of me wants to say this is an optical effect created by a poor transfer, but I have nothing to compare it too. You see, a lot of the scenes in Trauma are filmed with a fish-eyes lens. This lens bends the corner of the shot, so, for instance, periphery shots of doorframes make them rounded or bowed. It is hard to explain, but if you have the Tartan disc, watch, for instance, the scenes where David and Aura are running through the hospital. It is very evident there and also right after the berry eating scene I’ll discuss later. It adds a dream like feel to what is – to be frank – anything but a dreamlike film.

Another scene that I never thought would have to be relived was the ghastly rock video from the middle of Phantom of the Opera. I have always disliked it in Phantom, and I must have blanked out that it first appears here.

Aura has a doctor who realizes that she must have seen the face of the killer that night at the séance. So he drugs here in the hopes she will tell him. The method he chooses to do this is with “Psychotropic berries”. About all I can say about them is that they're a nice red. I don’t know, it just seems strange he would choose them, knowing the Aura is an anorexic and all – want to drug her – give her food!

Aura hallucinates, and one of those is the reliving of the rock video sequence. It’s so bad, I don’t even want to talk about it. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Dario successfully portray a real dream. He’s much more effective in half dream states, or in real life situations, however grotesque.

Having said that, after the berries has worn off, we get a shot of Aura opening her mouth to reveal the deep red of the berries. She flicks her tongue over them, spreading the red juices onto her lips. This scene is almost an exact copy of a small sequence in the Stendhal Syndrome. In that film, Asia’s character is being raped, and her lip is cut with a razor. Once again we see the red (in this case blood) spread onto her lips from her tongue. The similarity is striking.

03-10-2003, 05:12 PM
During Trauma I was also struck by Dario’s handling of the medical profession. In Phenomena, my last viewing, the doctors brutalize Jennifer. They are not much better here. We see evil doctors, evil nurses, Chiropractors with evil pasts and on. Dario even outfits the killer with a doctor’s bag, just for grins. I suspect we have a rooted fear or dislike going on here – and why not?

Other interesting tricks are visible during one of the murders. One of the intended victims had hid herself in a hotel room. Aura and David are in the same hotel, trying to find this woman, but they don’t know whicht room she is in.

During this part of the film, we get a second clue as to identity of the killer. The woman hiding out is expecting her girlfriend to come by the hotel to visit. The phone rings in her room; it’s reception saying she has a visitor. We hear the character say, “Let her up.” Of course, this means the killer is a lady. You have to be quick to pick these things up, but it is there.

While we wait for the killer to strike again, Aura is taking a shower. Here we see a close up of the showerhead, water pouring out. David interrupts Aura, and she asks him to leave the room, “because I don’t want you to get rained upon.” A clear reference to the murders, which by this time they have figured out only take place during rainstorms.

The pan from the showerhead shot is to David lying on a bed, looking up at the ceiling, tracing a crack to a sprinkler head. It won’t be long before the murder is done, while water pours from a sprinkler that has been activated. The same shot of the showerhead is now played out with the sprinkler head. It’s a nice tie in that brings Aura even closer to being a victim.

Special mention to the wacky cast members at the hotel. When the sprinkler is set off, an alarm sounds, and people come flooding out their rooms. My favorite is this very drunk fellow wearing a fez. Very funny!

The hotel room also has a nice sequence when David busts into the room to find the headless corpse. The head is on the carpet, saying a name. We later find out it’s the name of a doctor who is soon to die. It’s all done very well, but sadly Dario decides to use it again in the climax to the film. Once it’s been done once, it’s a shame to see it used again. Mind you, it’s done very well, so maybe I should not complain.

The doctors killing is probably the most talked about killing in the entire film. You know what, that might just be because it is the only DIFFERENT killing in this film. I have yet to talk about the murder weapon used here, but I will. Trust me though; it is one of the weakest elements of this film.

The weapon breaks during the doctors death, so we get the famous elevator death scene, with an elevator decapitating the good doctor. I’ve got to tell you, ten points for the idea, and two for the execution. Watching a blue head plummet down that shaft, with the silly, “Oooooooo” sound effect, is just too much. Dario is often let down by his special effects (thinking Stendhal Syndrome here) but this is always disappointing. If you’re looking for the rain segment here, he doesn’t die with water pouring on him. However, he just came OUT of a rainstorm, and this, is soaking wet.

A nice red herring appears toward the end of this film. Aura’s good doctor still wants to know who the killer is, so he tries to kidnap her. We see him pulling her from the bed – all the time wearing the trademark black gloves! Anyone who wears those in an Argento flick is hiding something!

Not only that, but once he escapes we have a Gods honest Argento car chase! When was the last time we saw a speeding car breaking through barriers and having a huge crash in a Dario flick? Sure, there have been plenty of stationary ones, but moving at high speed!!!

And hey – it does not end there. The good doctor sadly dies at the scene of the crash – and we see him slumped at the window of his car. His hand, black glove and all, is held over his head. The harkens back to the second murder scene, where Aura sees the killer holding her fathers head up for her to see. This doctor looks, for the entire world, like he’s holding his own head out the window – nicely done!

Of course, what’s a classic Argento scene without a bit of confusion? The trunk of this guy’s car is full of the heads of the victims! Now they’re scattered over the road for everyone to find. Quite how they got there is never revealed. If I assume he knew the mother was the murderer, and he was trying to protect her (not unreasonable) then why was he trying to kidnap Aura? What was he going to do with the heads? Trust me, it’s all a bit confusing, and is never revisited. Well, that’s not quite true, in a bit of Dario humor, the movie actually ends with a cop asking Aura, “why were the heads in the back of his car?” I mean you simply have to laugh.

I have mentioned the poor soundtrack before, the Tartan disc, all around, is poor in this regard. The one time it does work well is when David finds the bedroom of Nicholas. This is an eerie scene, where he walks into a room with white net curtains having from the ceiling, with the name “Nicholas” embroidered on every one. All the time we hear the name of Nicholas being called out, and it moves from one speaker to another. It’s a great scene (it’s also where you’ll catch sight of that children's toy that opens the film). Sadly, it is the only time the sound really works for the film. The murderer appears through the fog of the net curtains, rising like a ghost.

I don’t feel a need to go into the back-story of why the murders took place. By the end of this film you’ll know, so stick with it. It does all make twisted sense.

I would be remiss if I did not comment that the end scene has similarities with Phenomena. They both end in a basement, they both include murderess women, they both have a man chained to the wall. Still, they’re not so much the same that it bothers you, and the gore factor of Phenomena is not on show here.

Two final things I want to go over – the murder weapon thing, and the part of Aura.

On the subject of the weapon – I once again find myself saying that Trauma suffers because the set pieces just lack punch and invention. This is very evident here, because Dario tied himself to the simplest of weapons. There is only one way to kill someone with it – put the wire around the neck and cut off the head.

Fine, at first you’re like – wow, that’s gotta hurt! But how about after the second victim dies the same way, and the third? I’ve really got to fault the choice of sticking with the weapon. The theme here is decapitation, aren’t there many glorious ways of doing that? Couldn’t the warped mind of the great Argento come up with some fiendishly convoluted ways of doing away with the victims? Not this time. It saddles the movie with uninspired death sequences, and it does hurt.

Still, with the extended back stories, maybe he didn’t think the murders were really key?

I will also add that when looking back at this film, I remember the wire tool the most. However, it is not the only weapon used. Before having their heads cut of, the victims get a swift hammer blow to the spine or head. That can’t be bad, can it?

Finally – to the part of Aura. Asia does her best here - and she sways from good to bad to worse. I don’t know, she just had not yet found her chops. It’s interesting now to see how far she has come, but some of the scenes here should never have been allowed to stand. I’m thinking of the bridge scene the most, but there are other examples.

The part of Aura gets a lot of screen time, and along with Jennifer in Phenomena it puts a female character right in the middle of everything. This does not happen often, and even less in horror films (even if Trauma does not feel like a real horror film). It’s a nice touch on Dario’s’ part.

So what to make of Trauma? Well, it is not classic Argento. This is clearly a slump for him. Making it had to be a huge chore – in a strange land, with a film without flair, tied to some pretty depressing locations.

I hate to say it – but this might well be “rent it” Dario. On the other hand, I bought it, so who am I to say? Maybe it’s a “rent before you buy” movie.

If you want Dario with more stories, with more space between killings, then go for it. But if you’re a typical Argento fan, you might well be left thinking, “when does the fun start?” I was left cold by the film in the end, but it was not a complete waste. Dario is always better than 90% of the other trash out there - it’s just that, when bored, he settles on simply cutting off heads. For anyone else it would make for a classic, for Dario, it looks like he’s sleepwalking.

One final shocking revelation. For the first time, my wife said, “I really enjoyed that.” Sometimes we search for the one Dario film to use in order to convert others – is this it?

03-11-2003, 11:05 PM
Originally posted by dwatts
Trauma sits between Opera and The Stendhal Syndrome. The writers credited here are Dario and TED Klein.

The truth however, is that this story is based on a plot by Dario, his long running cohort Franco Ferrini and Gianna Romoli who co-authored Dellamorte Dellamore. I do not know anything about TED Klien, and I’m not sure I want to.


TED Klein is one of the most respected horror writers in America. He is famously perfectionist and has only published one novel and one book of short stories in the last 18 years although he has written more short stories. He was also the editor of Twilight Zone magazine at one time. His amazing novel "The Ceremonies" is an updating of Lovecraft's themes. And his short stories are some of the best horror/dark fantasy I've read.

I was extremely surprised to see his name on the credits as I was unaware of any other filmwriting he has done and his "quiet" style seems very different to Dario's "showy" style. I assume he was polishing up the language in the script but I really don't know.

Personally I like "Trauma" and feel that it is the victim of people's expectations. It's doesn't have the "feel" of Argento's previous films and the violent setpieces are not as satisfying. Consequently people say that Argento's normal film-making style was cramped by the Hollywood system and commercial expectations. But, from what I've read Dario was trying to make a different style of film. There's no doubt that he is more interested in the characters' emotions and the topics of anorexia and addiction. The two lead characters have more depth and are more sympathetic than normal for an Argento picture.

I'm not saying that "Trauma" is a masterpiece and it's certainly not one of his better films. But I admire Argento for trying something a little different as he did with "Black Cat" and "Phantom of the Opera" both of which I also like. I think "Cat O' Nine Tails" is his worst film.

03-11-2003, 11:43 PM
Hey! Thank you for some background - I had seriously never heard of the fellow.

03-12-2003, 01:36 AM
No problem. I don't blame you for not having heard of him as he has no profile in mainstream media. He is just well-known within the horror fiction genre.