A ruthless killer is on the prowl, decapitating victims with a portable guillotine and collecting their heads as trophies. An anorexic 16-year-old girl, Aura Petrescu (Asia Argento), witnesses the beheading of her parents (Piper Laurie and Dominique Serrand) 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 about trying to track down the killer.
Dario Argento describes Trauma as his most personal project, and as such it comes as something of a surprise that it is arguably the film that least reflects his own individual style. The film was shot in Minneapolis with the budget split between Argento's own ADC company, Italian distributors Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori, and the US-based Overseas Film Group, and the result can be described as an eclectic cocktail with far too many cooks. His only real attempt to break into the American mainstream, an audience that had never really interested him before, the experience was enough to send Argento scarpering off back to his native Italy, declaring that "America can screw itself" (although his recent input into the upcoming Masters of Horror series would suggest that he has since mellowed towards that part of the world).
The plot itself, at least, is pure Argento, and although much of the original screenplay, by frequent collaborator Franco Ferrini and Dellamorte Dellamore writer Gianni Romoli, was eventually watered down by T.E.D. Klein, an American horror writer and editor of the Twilight Zone magazine, much of the subtext that make Argento's best films so rewarding is present. Unfortunately, Klein's influence results in the viewer being beaten over the head with what should really have remained in the metaphor domain. At the time, anorexia remained a misunderstood disorder in America, despite its vast number of sufferers, and as a result, the film is at great pains to explain the traits common in many anorexics - the suppression of sexuality, a domineering mother (one of Argento's favourite motifs), an absent father - frequently through Arnie (Ira Belgrade, also the film's casting director), David's co-worker and a character who seems to exist only to spout exposition. Intriguingly, an additional metaphor involving the French Revolution, which explained the use of the guillotine as the murder weapon, was also axed. The end result, sadly, is that the film is very much less than the sum of its parts.
It's an odd melange to be sure. After all, where else would you find Dario Argento directing Piper Laurie, Brad Dourif and Frederic Forrest? I suspect that a big part of the film's awkwardness is not so much the fact that it is an American film but that it is an American film with so many decidedly Italian elements. The trademark giallo concepts, which work so well in their native land, come across as downright awkward here (the extravagance of the murder set-pieces, and the roving POV camera, seem out of place amid the bland landscape of Minneapolis). As Anthony Nield points out in his review, Argento seems to be channeling Brian De Palma far more than his usual fare of Fritz Lang and Federico Fellini (ironic, given that De Palma is often accused of filching from Argento), not least in the casting of Piper Laurie, who evokes her role from Carrie, and the bombastic score by Pino Donaggio. The film is also lacking in the outlandish gore for which the director has become known, and although it is fair to say that a number of his other offerings (specifically The Cat O' Nine Tails and The Card Player) have been weak on the blood and guts front, Trauma is arguably the film in which the violence has the least impact. On a handful of occasions, most of them involving heads doing the impossible after being decapitated, the death scenes even have an element of unintentional comedy.
As for the cast, we must be content to accept both the good and the bad. Ironically, the Oscar-nominated Forrest and Oscar-winning Laurie give by far the worst performances in the movie (it has since emerged that they didn't take the gig seriously at all and deliberately hammed it up - which comes across as pretty reprehensible considering that they were actually getting paid for the job), with Laurie sporting a chuckle-inducing Romanian accent that makes her come across as little more than a caricature. Brad Dourif, in what is essentially an extended cameo, fares better, but he is introduced too late in the game to make much of an impact. The two young leads, Christopher Rydell and Asia Argento (directed by her father for the first time), do a pretty commendable job, but they are far from consistent and cope substantially worse in some scenes than in others. Most troublingly, they exhibit little in the way of chemistry and often come across quite awkwardly in their scenes together, although to be fair they do improve towards the end. (This is certainly a long way from Asia's subsequent collaboration with her father, The Stendhal Syndrome, which remains arguably her finest performance to date.) It seems a little unusual to be critiquing the acting talent in an Argento film, but this just goes to show how far away we are from his usual fare here.
If the film has one stand-out moment, it is the breathtaking "Ruby Rain" sequence in which David, believing that Aura has drowned himself, throws himself into a lake and desperately searches for her, as the aforementioned piece of music plays, accompanied by the operatic voice of Laura Evan. It's one of the most haunting and moving pieces Argento has ever directed, and it gives some idea of how powerful the film could have been as a whole if it had been less uneven. Trauma is, ultimately, a lesser Argento, but it is an interesting piece of work and represents a vital phase in his career: the beginning and end of his attempt to gain mainstream American recognition.
I am going to begin this portion of the review by voicing my displeasure at Anchor Bay, who, it would seem, have decided to skimp on this release. Trauma suffered from a number of cuts, many of them distributor-mandated, which resulted in several scenes, both key and incidental, being excised from release prints. Around four minutes of the missing material made their way into the film's Italian release, and the now out of print DVD by Cecchi Gori remains the only legitimate release of the film on DVD to actually feature these scenes as part of the film itself (this DVD is, however, dubbed into Italian, and features no English language options at all). Several other important moments, including an alternate introduction to the characters of Aura, David and Grace, as well as a subplot in which Grace supplies David with fake prescriptions, can only be seen in an unofficial rough work print of the film.
When Anchor Bay's edition was originally announced, it was stated that they planned on incorporating as much of the missing material as possible, in order to compile the longest ever cut of the film, and the packaging proclaims that it is "fully restored and totally uncut for the first time ever in America". This, it would turn out, is unequivocally false advertising, since what is actually featured on this DVD is nothing more than the same 106-minute version that was screened in American cinemas and has been available on US VHS (and DVD in most of Europe) for years. Some deleted materials are present on the disc, it's true, but they merely comprise a 5-minute reel featuring the additional scenes found on the Italian DVD. Presented mainly in Italian with burned-in English subtitles, they look to have been culled from a video tape and come with no introductory notes, thus failing to clarify their context within the narrative.
Still, this release should be a worthwhile purchase if it improves on the audio-visual presentations of the other DVD releases, right? That's the theory, but in practice Anchor Bay have provided a completely unremarkable and, in places, downright unpleasant transfer. It's presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 (not 1.85:1, as the packaging states), but that's about the only thing it has going for it. Like Anchor Bay's release of The Card Player, released at the same time, it features an interlaced transfer, which results in loss of definition, strobing and ghosting during scenes of fast movement, and copious examples of the moiré effect. Most damningly, the picture looks incredibly soft in all but the tightest of close-ups. Quite shockingly, this transfer is only slightly better than the non-anamorphic, artefact-ridden mess that Tartan brought out in the UK several years ago - a DVD that has since been superceded by the recent UK release by Optimum (reviewed here by Anthony Nield). Indeed, for those looking to experience the film with the best possible image quality, I strongly recommend that version.
Like many Anchor Bay releases, the audio is comprised of English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0 mixes, both of which seem to have been taken from the same master stem, so they exhibit the same strengths and weaknesses. Essentially, the audio is much the same as the previous releases of the film, which have always been a bit on the strained side. The dialogue tends to sound quite thin, and the music volume seems to be slightly underpowered. I found that I got better results out of the 2.0 mix than the 5.1, since the dialogue sounded a bit fuller. Once again, Anchor Bay have neglected to provide any subtitles.
Although not quite the full-blown special edition that everyone was hoping for, Anchor Bay have provided a number of interesting bonus materials, resulting in what is undoubtedly the most feature-packed release of the film to date.
Love, Death & Trauma is a 19-minute featurette that is essentially a lengthy interview with Dario Argento, bookended by clips from the film and the occasional piece of archive footage from behind the scenes. Argento reminisces about a number of different topics, and delivers some extremely amusing anecdotes, most notably the way people tend to react when he sits and watches them, and the fun that he and Tom Savini had coming up with the portable guillotine that the killer uses. It's interesting that, despite the bad experiences he had with the film's distributors, he seems to be quite fond of the end product, and he claims to have enjoyed the process of working with the American crew, who he describes as very enthusiastic.
On Set with Tom Savini follows. An 8-minute VHS-sourced "home movie", this provides an entertaining and often insightful look at the creation of the various prosthetic effects used in the film. This is easily the most comprehensive piece of behind the scenes footage that has ever been released for this title, and it provides a wonderful window into the various processes used in the film.
Up next is a feature-length Audio Commentary by Alan Jones. Jones, who is the author of the excellent book Profondo Argento, has followed the production of every Argento film since Tenebre (although I believe Opera was the first title for which he actually visited the set), and as such is an excellent fountain of knowledge for all things Argento. Although his own review of Trauma was fairly luke-warm, he mentions that it has gone up in his estimation since he last saw it, and he provides some interesting factual information both about the cast and crew and the various aspects of the production. Most interesting is his discussion of the original Ferrini/Romoli script - a tragic case of "what could have been" if ever there was one. As was the case with his commentary on The Card Player, there are a few moments during which he does little more than narrate the on-screen events, but this is, by and large, an excellent track that Argento fans will undoubtedly enjoy.
The aforementioned Deleted Scenes follow, and there is little to be said about them that was not discussed in the DVD Presentation section. A Gallery of promotional images, the film's American Trailer, a textual Dario Argento Bio, and Bonus Trailers for Suspiria, Opera, The Card Player, Deep Red and Dawn of the Dead complete the package.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Trauma is a classic case of sheer laziness, and while it is by far the most feature-packed release of the film to date, its transfer is extremely disappointing and the fact that the studio has failed to live up to its original promise to include as much of the cut footage as possible is represensible. By all means buy this DVD for is extras (it is, after all, relatively inexpensive and will no doubt drop in price fairly soon), but don't expect the image quality for which Anchor Bay has become known.