A mentally-disturbed anorectic sixteen-year-old runaway girl, Aura Petrescu, witnesses the brutal murder of her father and her psychic mother. The killer chases after her fearing she may have seen his face. Meanwhile the doctor who took care of her wants to have custody over her and return her to the hospital. One day while trying to commit suicide she’s helped by David, an illustrator, who helps her discover the killer while keeping her free from the hospital.
Dario Argento is a filmmaker who refuses to change and that’s creatively dangerous. Since his first movie, the magnificent The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, he’s been playing variations on the same formula: amateur sleuth tries to solve string of brutal killing after accidentally getting involved in the case. In Trauma the formula is becoming exhausted. A serial killer is on the loose decapitating his victims. A psychic during a séance channels the spirit of one of the victims. Before accusing the killer, however, the psychic is killed. If this sounds familiars to Argento fans it’s because it’s one of the plot points of Deep Red. There is suspense here but the director is hardly exploring new situations. Even his concern with anorexia is superficial at best. This is Argento resting on his laurels.
Although Trauma lacks the inventive camera work of Deep Red or the lush colour palette of Inferno, it’s by no means a bland movie without its sparkles of genius. Some things are in the movie just because, I guess, Argento thought they looked fun, like the shots of lizards. Argento uses animals in almost every movie and he tends to use them excellently, either as important plot points (Opera and Phenomena) or for their savage symbolism. The movie is also riddled with dark humour. One f my favourite scenes is when the killer follows Aura into the hospital and murders a nurse in the presence of a mental patient who watches in terror and then waves the killer goodbye. The gore is restrained, but fans of severed heads will be satisfied with their realism. It’s a pity Argento cares more about props than acting or dialogue.
The cast is exceptionally good. It has Piper Laurie, a very threatening Frederic Forrest, and even a brief appearance by Brad Dourif. Argento’s daughter, Asia, and Christopher Rydell play the protagonists and give sadly the weakest performances. The problem is that the dialogue just isn’t very good or natural. For consummate actors like Laurie and Dourif, who can turn cheese into gold, that’s not a problem, but Rydell and Argento fail to rise above their material. I’ll give the director credit, however, for playing the relationship between Aura and David very emotionally. Friendship and caring seldom exist in Argento’s world, the protagonists being too busy solving crimes for that. Here he actually tries to explore the feelings each one has for the other and that makes Trauma one of his most touching movies.
This was Argento’s first production in the United States and it’s tempting to lay the blame on those awful producers who just don’t understand geniuses. But that’s too easy. There’s every indication that he had a tight control over the movie and perhaps that was the problem. If there had been a producer reigning in Argento, I doubt so much of the poor characterisation, ridiculous dialogue, not to mention silly ideas like talking severed heads, would have made it to the screen. Hollywood may be soul crushing for artists, but at least the average producer seems to care about things like logic and continuity. Sadly Argento doesn’t. Argento’s decay was a slow process that started after Deep Red, his last great movie in my opinion, the one where he synthesised his dream-like vision of the world with inventive cinematography, a vivid colour scheme and a cerebral mystery. Since then he’s had many ups and downs. Trauma belongs at the bottom of his filmography and I recommend it only for Argento enthusiasts.
Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento, Gianni Romoli, Franco Ferrini, T.E.D. Klein, Ruth Jessup
Cast: Piper Laurie, Frederic Forrest, Brad Dourif, Asia Argento, Christopher Rydell
Runtime: 106 min