Suburban Minneapolis: a ruthless killer is on the prowl, with a penchant for decapitating victims and collecting their heads as trophies. An anorexic 16-year-old girl, Aura Petrescu (played by Asia Argento in her first role as an actor for her father), witnesses the beheading of her two parents and goes on the run, pursued by the bizarre Dr. Judd (Frederic Forrest), who wants to return her to the "safety" of his vicious rehabilitation clinic. Aura, convinced that something she saw during the night of her parents' murder holds the key to the assassin's identity, teams up with former drug addict David Parsons (Christopher Rydell), and together they set out trying to track down the killer.
1993's Trauma was Dario Argento's attempt to break into mainstream US cinema, and given the director's penchant for outlandish visuals, breaking of rules and a refusal to conform to "norms" of film storytelling, this was always going to be an uphill struggle. On one hand, he attempts to dumb down the film enough for it to be accepted by those unfamiliar with his work, while on the other he still attempts to retain enough of the style that made him such a hit with art-house viewers and fans of the macabre.
The film's greatest strength is its flawed characters. Both Aura and David have severe problems which they battle throughout the film, yet both remain likeable. This is especially true of David, who walks a very fine line between being a concerned friend and an unscrupulous fiend attempting to take advantage of a frightened girl. The character of Aura is based on Asia Argento's half-sister Anna, an anorexic who died after the film was released. Information on the mysterious Anna is very scarce, the sole references to her seeming to originate from an interview with Asia that is reproduced on the DVD. Knowing this makes her performance all the more impressive, and gives the film an eery feeling of reality. That said, she is definitely inconsistent (her opening scene is pretty awful), and she has to make do with playing a character who is victimized throughout the film and never gets a chance to stand up and fight back (something that was rectified in the next Argento film, The Stendhal Syndrome).
The other characters are either broadly comedic or nightmarish in their presentation, from David's snack-guzzling colleague Arnie (Ira Belgrade in an example of one of the film's most ostentatiously American roles) to his icy girlfriend Grace (Laura Johnston). Many of Argento's films have made heavy use of all-powerful maternal figures, not least the two films of the currently incomplete Three Mothers trilogy, Suspiria and Inferno. Here, Aura's mother Adriana (Piper Laurie hamming it up something rotten) is the embodiment of the domineering parent: bizarre, frightening, protective and vindictive all at once. Also watch out for a short uncredited cameo from Fiore Argento as a clinic receptionist, and a brief scene with Brad Dourif, who is around just long enough to be decapitated.
The script is an odd combination of the bizarre and mundane. Pacing-wise, it often feels like a daytime made-for-TV movie, with a disjointed, meandering style of storytelling and some rather flat writing. The dialogue feels less bizarre than usual for an Argento film, but that's not to say it doesn't have its problems. It often seems overly expositional, and at times I got the feeling that Argento was deliberately inserting phrases and snatches of dialogue that pandered to the stereotypes of American movies. A great deal of the script's problems can be attributed to the presence of American author T.E.D. Klein, who is accomplished in his own field but I suspect was simply brought on board to "Americanize" the story. Characters such as the snack-eating Arnie, who spouts advice on anorexia (I can only assume that this was a misfire attempt at irony), and the young boy who lives next door to the killer, are decidedly out of character for an Argento movie and I suspect are the result of Klein's input. Rumour has it that Argento, Ferrini and Romoli originally produced a vastly superior script that was more in tone with Argento's regular aesthetics than the end product. If this is true, then it is truly a shame that it was not used.
The bland Minneapolis backdrop against which Argento sets the film is extremely detramental. Anyone expecting grandiose architecture à la Profondo Rosso, Suspiria or Inferno should look elsewhere, as this film is as far removed from their baroque stylings as can be. Argento throws in a few crazy camera moves, but they come across as forced when placed alongside the otherwise restrained cinematography, and an early scene showing Aura and David in a diner feels like it could have been directed by any TV-movie-of-the-week hack rather than the grand master of Italian horror. At least cinematographer Raffaele Mertes throws in some nifty ambient lighting and smoke flares (far easier to appreciate on the Italian transfer than the UK one). This is also the last time, to this date, that Argento has used the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, something that is sorely missed, as he really knows how to use it to its full potential.
Pino Donnagio's score is rather clumsy, often coming across as extremely out of place and contradicting the on-screen events. This is a shame, considering the high quality both of his work for Brian De Palma and his contributions to the Argento/Romero collaboration Two Evil Eyes, four years earlier. The one exception is "Ruby Rain", the haunting and quite beautiful theme that crops up at various points in the movie, complete with solo female vocals. Rumour has it that Argento wanted to use his frequent musical collaborators Goblin (or at least some of its members) for the score, but his US producers balked at the idea. If this is true, then the tone of the movie would certainly have been very different with them handling scoring duties. It's also a shame to see the gore relatively dumbed down when compared to Argento's other work - especially his previous feature-length film, Opera, which was extreme even by his standards. Tom Savini's animatronics are reasonably good, but they all have a decidedly unnatural, plasticky look to them. This is especially true of the various decapitated heads, and is made a lot worse by the fact that Argento, for some reason, decided to make them move and react after they had been severed from their bodies.
It's difficult to know for sure how Trauma would have panned out if it had been an Italian production rather than an American one. One thing is for sure, it would have been very different in tone and, I suspect, in its reception. While Trauma is decidedly weaker than the majority of Argento's other films, I can't help thinking that a number of people have panned it simply because it is an American product: certain people view it as a betrayal of what the director supposedly stood for. After all, this was the man who explicitly went out of his way to create a style of filmmaking that opposed the Hollywood model in every conceivable way. Trauma, therefore, has its flaws, but certain critics of the film have a habit of exaggerating its problems. Whatever some people might say, this is not a bad film.
The story of Trauma is an undeniably sad one. Disappointed with both the film's artistic merits and its box office results, Argento returned to Italy to work on productions that, while definitely giving him much more artistic freedom, had vastly lower budgets. It is more than likely that Trauma damaged both his reputation as a herald of unique cinema, and any hope of making it big with mainstream audiences. His foray into American cinema, while by no means bad, ends up being a mere a shadow of what he is capable of, and suggests that there is simply no way for him to make a compromise between mass market appeal and creative freedom.
The Italian version:
The Italian version of Trauma includes approximately four minutes of additional scenes that were, for some reason, deleted from the English language prints. These include more exposition, some minor dialogue, an entire scene featuring Aura running into Dr. Judd at an open-air market, and also slightly more gore in the deaths of two characters. Unfortunately, the Italian version is currently only available on an Italian DVD from Cecchi Gori Home Video, which includes Italian audio and subtitles only. Unlike most of Argento's films, Trauma was shot in English with no post-dubbing. Thus, Italian is definitely not the way to watch the film.
Tartan gives Trauma a non-anamorphic presentation, but one that is thankfully in the film's correct ratio of 2.35:1. This is a weak transfer for many reasons, but its two biggest problems are its muted colour scheme and extremely aggressive filtering. The image has a flat, video-like look, and whenever there is a lot of movement, the whole thing disintegrates into a mess of trails and other ugly artifacts. Especially during the night scenes (of which there are a fair number), everything looks rather grey, and because of the filtering, none of the film's grain structure is preserved. Add to that some quite severe blocking, and you have a very weak transfer. Given Tartan's track record, this is probably unsurprising.
On the left: Cecchi Gori's Italian transfer.
On the right: Tartan's UK transfer.
The Italian transfer:
As was the case of Medusa's release of The Stendhal Syndrome when compared to the Dutch Film Works version, it's not so much that the Cecchi Gori DVD is very good as it is that the Tartan DVD is very poor. Cecchi Gori's transfer is of a high standard, demonstrating great detail and colour saturation, but it suffers somewhat from being overly dark in some scenes (I suspect some contrast boosting) and slightly weak encoding in a number of areas - the result of trying to cram the film on to a single-layer DVD. Still, these problems are small fry when compared to those afflicting the Tartan DVD. The Italian transfer would work out at around 8/10, compared the the UK version's 3/10.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is flat and lifeless, with the sound levels seeming overly "crushed" together - for instance, the music never seems to rise above the same volume level as the dialogue, even during the more dramatic scenes.
No subtitles are provided.
The Italian audio:
The Italian DVD features a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix in Italian, with no English track provided. The Italian audio sounds a lot fuller than the English track provided on the UK DVD, with some nice split-channel effects and an overall more pleasing feel to it.
The menu design is reasonable, with animation and some (annoyingly short) audio from the film playing in the background. It could have been worse, but it's nothing to write home about.
The packaging uses the quite stylish theatrical poster as a front cover, but unfortunately Tartan's designers seem to lack any sort of imagination, as is exemplified on the back cover. Still, at least they state that the disc is not region encoded upfront, unlike many companies who prefer not to mention such things - kudos.
There is very little in the way of bonus material on this disc. One gets the impression that Tartan did their best in this aspect but simply struggled to find anything relating to the film.
Trailer - Presented in 4x3 pan and scan, this rather cheesy trailer with an annoying voice-over runs for approximately 2 minutes and doesn't do the film much justice. The voice-over guy even manages to mispronounce Asia Argento's name.
Filmographies - Rather comprehensive but occasionally inaccurate filmographies are provided for Dario and Asia Argento.
Phantom of the Opera trailer - A 1 minute 30 seconds trailer for Dario Argento's The Phantom of the Opera, also available from Tartan in the UK.
Gallery - Six behind-the-scenes photographs showing Argento directing Trauma.
Asia Argento interview - This text-based interview by Billy Chainsaw covers various aspects relating to Trauma, including quite a bit of information about the mysterious Anna Argento. Quite interesting material, but it is annoyingly presented as a subtitle stream against an animated background, and in general it runs too quickly for you to be able to both read it and soak up the information, so the "pause" button on your remote control will most likely be necessary.
Richard Stanley essay - Presented in the same fashion as the Asia interview, this is essentially the musings of a fan, discussing how he became acquainted with Argento's work. It's self-indulgent and doesn't seem relevant in the slightest, so the only possible reason I can think of for its inclusion is to fill space.
Trauma at the BBFC - This text-based extra describes in detail the cuts originally imposed on Trauma by the British Board of Film Censors. (In case you're wondering, this DVD release has had these cuts restored.)
Tartan Terror trailer reel - Trailers are included for the following films: Basket Case, Ring, Audition, Pumpkinhead, Deep in the Woods, and The Herschell Gordon Lewis Collection.
The Italian extras:
The Italian release is equally weak in the extras department, featuring the Italian theatrical trailer, biographies of Dario and Asia Argento, photos of four of the main actors, a screen with some of the film's main credits, 9 behind-the-scenes photographs, and a bizarre text-based extra that seems to be a synopsis of the entire film.
The end result of the Italian horror maestro's foray into American cinema is a film that is somewhere between an Dario Argento film and a commercial movie, which ends up pleasing nobody. It is too bizarre to be mainstream and too conventional to be an arthouse film. The Dutch Film Works release is poor but seems to be the only way of viewing the movie in its original language on DVD. The Italian Cecchi Gori release, but contrast, has a much better transfer and includes four minutes of material missing from English language versions, but it presented in dubbed Italian only with no subtitles. Hopefully, one day, someone will release a version of the film that includes the best of both worlds. Until then, my advice is either to get the UK DVD or, like me, buy both.