Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #464
Number of Views: One
Release Date: 12 March 1993
Country of Origin: Italy, United States
Running Time: 106 minutes
Director: Dario Argento
Producers: Dario Argento, Chris Beckman, David Pash
Screenplay: Dario Argento, T.E.D. Klein, Ruth Jessup
Story: Franco Ferrini, Gianni Romoli, Dario Argento
Special Effects: Tom Savini
Cinematography: Raffaele Mertes
Score: Pino Donaggio
Editing: Bennett Goldberg, Dario Argento
Studios: ADC Films, Overseas FilmGroup
Distributors: Penta Film, Republic Pictures
Stars: Christopher Rydell, Asia Argento, Piper Laurie, Frederic Forrest, Laura Johnson, Dominique Serrand, James Russo, Ira Belgrade, Brad Dourif, Hope Alexander-Willis, Sharon Barr, Isabell O’Connor, Cory Garvin, Terry Perkins, Tony Saffold, Peter Moore
Suggested Audio Candy
Pino Donaggio “Trauma”
Is it better to burn out than fade away? Dario Argento is, without reasonable question, one of the finest filmmakers horror has ever known and his output throughout the seventies and eighties is truly second to none. The Bird With Crystal Plumage, Cat o’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebrae, Opera and, to a marginally lesser degree, Phenomena provided almost two decades of evidence of an artist who had mastered his craft. After the death of his producer father Salvatore in 1987, things took a turn for the worse for Argento and it could be argued that he has never fully recovered from that loss. There have been flashes of brilliance scattered like breadcrumbs through many of his later works but none have come close to capturing the feel of the master in his true creative flourish.
Like myself, he admits to being easily spooked, and Dario has all manner of monsters tucked away in his closet every time he lays down his head. Thankfully for us, he shares each of them in his own exclusive way and illustrates each of them in such a manner that this therapy provides us with reason to book in a session of our own. I believe the correct term is working through one’s own trepidation and, at the top of his game, there are few more naturally gifted nightmare makers in the same stratosphere as he. While Suspiria and Inferno delved into witchcraft and scared audiences worldwide straight out of their skins, the giallo provides his comfort zone and, alongside the great Mario Bava, he practically pioneered the movement in the seventies. Trauma fits rather snugly into this sub-genre but comes six years the wrong side of arguably his last great movie.
This was Argento’s first Stateside production and the transition was never likely to be an entirely smooth one. With a $7 million budget at his disposal and the keys to the kingdom in the pocket of his corduroys, it should have acted as platform for his work to reach an even wider audience. However, certain key developments proved that the land of the free wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be. Frequent collaborators Goblin were his first choice for the score but the studio weren’t convinced it was the right move for an American audience, thus Pino Donaggio was drafted in as a replacement under duress. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a bad thing as Donaggio’s compositions are usually heaven-sent but they feel strangely low-key here and astonishingly don’t add a great deal to the overall Trauma experience.
Working with actors has always been his least favorite part of the filmmaking process so he recruits his own daughter Asia for the first of many integral turns. Daddy’s little girl is fundamental to Trauma as the character of Aura Petrescu is inspired by her half-sister Anna, who suffered from anorexia before dying in a tragic road accident, ironically just after the film’s release. She gives a solid account of herself as the troubled European who becomes caught up in a murder case in which she witnesses her parents being decapitated and is left to gather the fragments before the killer returns to wipe out the bloodline.
After a chance meeting on a Minneapolis bridge with passing motorist David Parsons (Christopher Rydell) she decides against taking her own life and the pair strike up a friendship in no time. This is alien territory for Argento as there is precious little time for love interest when he’s working that Italian magic but, presumably to please an American audience, he allows their budding love to flourish. It is a bold move but both actors do their level best to make their romantic involvement seem credible and it works to a degree. Having said that, a nagging concern exists that perhaps he is taking on a little too much and trying to please too wide a demographic. Any fault lies squarely with the studio in my eyes as the nucleus of a good film is here but it appears unable to break free of its enforced restraints.
We have ourselves a killer and this part is textbook giallo all the way, Nicknamed The Headhunter by the media, our dangerous stranger comes with all the usual black leather trimmings and possesses an intriguing device used to garrote and behead any victims. There are no shortage of donors and the trail back to Aura is decidedly messy but, despite all being connected by fate, most of them are largely superfluous to proceedings and snuffed out before their purpose can become clear. The whodunnit element is strong in Trauma and Argento plumps on unusually conventional narrative as he ushers us from one set piece to the next.
A bloated body count means many opportunities to witness the master doing precisely what he does best and there are certainly moments of sublime beauty amidst the convoluted mass of plot threads and red herrings. One particularly effective scene uses billowing drapes to seduce our receptors and his keen eye for visual detail cannot be called into question. Having said that, it feels a little sterile when compared to the likes of the garish primary colors of Suspiria and Inferno, or the wonderfully contradictory whites of Tenebrae. It’s heartbreaking to watch at times as there isn’t one particular area where Trauma fails, but it feels like he’s forgotten how to truly excel.
There are a couple of performances to encourage that we keep the faith and Piper Laurie gives a fascinating turn as Aura’s mother Adriana which calls to mind Margaret White from Carrie, albeit a smidgen less unhinged. The always bankable Brad Dourif also pops up in a much smaller capacity and manages to steal every scene he appears in. Alas, that doesn’t amount to anywhere near long enough and this is a valuable resource to squander. Despite feeling like Argento is beginning to buckle under the weight of unfair expectation, there’s enough incident shoehorned into its 106 minute running time for Trauma to never grow dull.
The final act has the unenviable challenge of tying everything together as tidy resolution is high on the list of priorities with American audiences and he manages this reasonably well thanks to not attempting anything too audacious with the eventual reveal. It’s an interesting outcome and Trauma ends on a flourish but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Argento knows only too well that his previous highs are unlikely to be scaled again. A travesty it most certainly isn’t and you don’t forget how to paint a canvas overnight. It’s just that the brush strokes here are a little too broad to create that elusive capolavoro.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: It will come as a massive relief that Tom Savini is on practical effects duties, after working with Argento previously on Two Evil Eyes. What is even more reassuring is that the deaths all revolve around the throat and there’s nothing than pleases the Sultan of Splatter more than to go for the jugular. Bizarrely, while the make-up is clearly up to par, it all feels a little subdued when compared to his previous body of work. Just like Trauma itself, we have to be content with brief flashes of ingenuity and there isn’t a dispatch here as playfully implemented as in the likes of The Prowler or The Burning. Meanwhile, the ample Asia flashes her glorious fun bags as has since become customary when daddy is behind the roving lens.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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