Trauma was Dario Argento’s first full-length American production, a bizarre psychologically repressive thriller that smacks of lesser De Palma. The film, like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, questions the authenticity of its protagonist’s sightline when Aura (Asia Argento), an anorexic junkie, witnesses the decapitation of her parents after having escaped from a local clinic. Trauma is both an underachieving Deep Red and an unpolished facsimile of Stendhal Syndrome, and where Tenebre invites active spectatorship, Trauma is convoluted to the point of distraction, worth savoring solely for Argento’s excesses of gore.
The film opens with a female African-American chiropractor’s decapitation. A young insect-loving boy, Gabriel (Cory Garvin), crawls into the killer’s house (not the chiropractor’s—yes, the opening scenes are confusing) after one of the killer’s lizards munches on a rare butterfly. In the film’s greatest sequence, the boy discovers the killer’s instrument of death (a sawing machine with a wire attachment), almost uses it on himself, and accidentally squeezes the lizard to death when the killer comes home. Though he narrowly escapes, the boy has already developed an attachment to the murderer’s house. The night before, George notices a black woman staring down at him from one of the windows. Argento places Gabriel and the spectator in the same shoes, showcasing his signature talent for summoning hazy shades of confusion. No, this isn’t the home of the chiropractor. What Gabriel is looking at is the woman’s decapitated head!
Aura flees a local clinic, bumps into the film’s dapper male hero, David (Christopher Rydell), and shows him her war wounds (here, track marks on her arms). David discusses his own history with drugs and they seemingly bond. After stealing David’s wallet, Aura is apprehended by a pair of aggressive social workers and is taken back to the home of her mother, Adriana (Piper Laurie). Locked inside her room, Aura overhears her mother conducting a séance with a bunch of creepy houseguests. The loony acting and busy soundtrack composed of overlapping voices highlights the scene. Adriana conjures up a ghost named Nicolas, whose relationship to the woman won’t be revealed until film’s end. Windows shatter, guests panic, and Aura (from her second-floor bedroom window) witnesses her parents running into the woods behind their home. She climbs down to the ground only to stumble across the headless corpse of her mother. The film’s faceless Headhunter killer stands in the distance, holding the heads of her parents. The film is on.
Argento undervalues David’s job as an art director for a local news station. The man’s fondness for art is ripe with moral discourse—he’s in charge of sketching the Headhunter for news coverage of the serial killer’s crimes. The station’s correspondent happens to be David’s girlfriend, a dumb blonde whose only significant contribution to the narrative is to provide self-reflexive commentary on her boy-toy’s graphic doodles: “Keep it tasteful!” Equally sketchy is the story’s kooky, beside-the-point treatment of anorexia: David’s co-worker goes on about the disorder when Aura’s sanity comes up, and Argento, in turn, acknowledges David’s concerns via a campy sequence that seemingly resembles a Paxil commercial. David drives through a city street populated by overly thin girls and prostitutes, and in ridiculous voiceover, he mumbles: “A lot of anorexics die. There’s something like eight million of them out there. Deeply attached to an unstable mother, she’ll dream her father is leaning over her about to kiss her.” This is Argento trying desperately to bring Freud into the equation. But the elegance of the imagery and editing is unmistakable Argento, like the fascinating cut to a scene where Dr. Judd (Frederic Forrest), Anna’s psychiatrist and father figure, leans over the girl’s fragile frame, forcibly feeding her a bunch of psychotropic berries. It’s amazing she’s able to keep them down.
After Dr. Judd’s death, Aura leaves behind a suicide note that sends David into a downward spiral. It is here that Argento conjures themes from his upcoming Stendhal Syndrome. David’s drug-induced stupor outside a gallery evokes his overwhelming sense of loss and feelings for Aura. While staring at a print of John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia” (which depicts the suicide of Hamlet’s girlfriend), David seemingly stumbles across a clue. Though his eyes are blurry from crying, he thinks he sees Aura on the street. What he really sees is a black-clothed stranger sporting the girl’s snaky bracelet. This remarkable sequence calls attention to the relationship between art and reality. Korean director Chang Youn-hyun would take this theme, Millais’s painting, and other elements from Trauma to the max in his delirious Tell Me Something.
On American turf, Argento’s distinctly European sensibility seems out of place (see the fairy-tale nature of the Gabriel scenes) but certainly not without its charm. At one point, Argento’s camera makes a 360-degree turn as it approaches the doorway of Aura’s home. It’s a pointless stylistic maneuver, Argento’s desperate attempt at giving Trauma a sense of structural coherence. Without Poe as claustrophobic leverage, Argento spiritlessly freewheels his way through the film’s events. Unlike The Black Cat, Trauma is constantly fighting to negotiate Argento’s baroque direction. Needlessly convoluted, yes, but batty sometimes in a good way: For sure, it’s worth taking in for its spectacular decapitation sequences and rigorous attention to detail. Not to mention Laurie’s campy performance.