Color, 1993, 111/106m.
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Asia Argento, Christopher Rydell, Piper Laurie, Frederic Forrest, James Russo, Brad Dourif, Laura Johnson
TonFilm (Blu-ray & DVD) (Austria R0 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay (US R0 NTSC), Laser Paradise (Germany R2 PAL), Optimum, Lionsgate (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), Tartan (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1)
Often seen by Dario Argento fans as the dividing line between his gloriously excessive Italian masterworks up through Opera and the highly erratic experiments that characterize the rest of his career, Trauma was the closest the director came to mounting a mainstream American feature. The genesis of the decision to go stateside was obviously his collaboration with George A. Romero on the Pittsburgh-shot anthology Two Evil Eyes, which didn't get a wide release but earned him a positive fan reception and relatively good reviews. Originally entitled Aura's Enigma and lensed in Minnesota, Trauma was handed to American horror writer T.E.D. Klein for an extra dialogue gloss and kept on a pair of the prior film's alumni, effects maestro Tom Savini and composer Pino Donaggio. The gore was kept to what were probably deemed to be R-rated levels, focusing more than usual on intricate plot twists and character development as well as extended suspense set pieces. The end result split fans down the middle, particularly when the film went straight to video in America with an atrocious VHS transfer that wreaked havoc on the film's intricate scope compositions. However, over time its status has risen, and some of its highlights (including a masterful final half hour) are now appreciated as some of Argento's strongest work from that era.
Argento's now famous daughter, Asia, took on the first of several leading roles for her father as Aura, an anorexic Romanian teenager on the run from child services. A killer named the Headhunter is also on the loose, seen first during a thunderstorm clobbering a chiropractor and severing her head with a handmade electrical noose. While teetering on the edge of a bridge, Aura is rescued by David (Rydell), a TV news artist and recovering drug addict, but their encounter is cut short when the authorities drag her back to her parents. Aura's eccentric mother (Laurie) holds a seance that night and invokes the spirit of the Headhunter's latest victim, only for the killer to show up outside during a rainstorm and behead both of Aura's parents. The traumatized girl goes to David for help and joins him to track down the killer, whose death list is still far from finished.
Sporting an odd array of supporting roles including a hammy Brad Dourif as a dubious doctor (basically a glorified cameo, but a memorable one), Frederic Forrest as Aura's overbearing shrink, and James Russo as a police officer, Trauma feels like no other Argento film before it but could not be the work of anyone else. The film constantly imposes a disorienting, drug-like state in the viewer as it repeatedly pauses for bizarre throwaway set pieces, such as an institution where David suddenly finds himself accused by the all the patients of an unseen murder. While Opera dabbled with unorthodox narrative forms in its final fifteen minutes, here Argento extends this approach to the last act of Trauma, a haunting, masterful payoff which veers the story in a wholly unexpected direction. This led to the even more extreme narrative twisting of The Stendhal Syndrome, widely regarded as Argento's last truly great film (albeit still an imperfect one). Trauma certainly isn't perfect; many of the extras were clearly grabbed off the street and handed cue cards, and the reggae band over the end credits is perhaps the greatest head scratcher in the director's entire career. (Well, at least until a certain praying mantis.) However, with hindsight the film has plenty to offer and really sticks with the viewer long after while improving with each viewing. Perhaps its greatest asset is the central performances by Rydell and Argento, a pair of damaged souls whose pain evoked by their pasts contributes heavily to the weird resonance of the climax.
The worst blow to Trauma's reputation was undoubtedly that first video release from Worldvision, whose abominable VHS and laserdisc edition chopped the scope compositions into foggy, unwatchable fullscreen fragments and undermined almost every single shot of the film. Equally bad was the muddy mono soundtrack, which stifled the score and rendered much of the dialogue unintelligible. Even the Japanese version reverted to this disastrous transfer, leaving fans to resort to a widescreen work print VHS which made the rounds through the video gray market. Containing 13 minutes of footage excised from Argento's final cut (including a more rational explanation for that reggae band and a better introduction for Aura), this rough cut contains a peculiar temp track score with tracks from Basic Instinct, Hellraiser, and Enya-- an odd combination, to say the least. A widescreen version from Tartan appeared on VHS in the UK but suffered from BBFC cuts to a pair of decapitation sequences. (The Worldvision tape was also trimmed down for an optional, Blockbuster-friendly R-rated version.) A UK Tartan DVD was non-anamorphic but watchable, derived from the same master used for their VHS but reinstating the excised gore.The extras listed on the back of the UK release look more impressive than they really are; on the disc you get the original trailer (prepared by Overseas for international exhibition), a trailer for Phantom of the Opera to tie in with Tartan's release of that title, a print interview with Asia Argento, some behind the scenes photographs, a Richard Stanley essay, and notes about the BBFC's previous cuts to the film.
In 2005, Anchor Bay stepped in with what was at the time the best release of the film to date on DVD, though it still left plenty to be desired. The stereo surround track is thankfully present and accounted for in 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, with thunderclaps nicely roaring from the rear speakers at opportune moments. That disc (now out of circulation) is anamorphic but interlaced, coupled with what appears to be a soft and not entirely successful PAL conversion job. The Anchor Bay edition also adds on some deleted scenes culled from the longer Italian release with English subtitles (strange, really, since the work print has the same bits in English, though apparently not in a final mix), namely a bit with David and his on/off girlfriend at the TV station, a chase through a food market, and other odds and ends. A solid featurette called "Of Love, Fear and Trauma" is also included with Argento talking at length about the film's genesis and personal significance, while Savini's work takes center stage in an eight-minute collection of highlights loaded with severed heads. (This is likely culled from the many, many hours of footage shot during production, which briefly popped up on the collector's market but is largely tedious to sit through.) The best extra, however, is an insightful commentary from Argento expert Alan Jones, who was on the set during shooting and has stories for virtually every scene in the film. The same master was apparently used for the reissued UK versions, which look very similar.
With most of Argento's films getting the Blu-ray treatment relatively quickly in the format's history, it's inevitable that someone would take a crack at a better-looking version of Trauma sooner rather than later. An HD version aired frequently on the American channel Showtime, but it looked pretty underwhelming and suffered from major synch issues in the audio. Fortunately the Austrian mediabook release from TonFilm is a drastic step up in image and audio quality, featuring the correct projection speed and a substantial amount of additional detail. The black levels are also a bit richer, which helps many of the iffier effects shots (especially that one in the elevator shaft) work more convincingly than before. The DTS-HD 2.0 surround audio also sounds excellent, with the score featuring more bass and sounding less harsh and tinny than prior releases. On the downside, the English track can only be played with forced German subtitles, though if your player is capable you can shift the subs down well into the lower letterbox bar; if you're even more resourceful you can get rid of them entirely, but that's not a tactic that's technically legal. Most interestingly, this is the longest English-language version available, clocking in at 111 minutes with all of the additional Italian scenes included in equally pristine quality. Unfortunately those bits don't have English subs, but you can figure them out very easily as there isn't a huge amount of actual dialogue. The extras aren't as lavish as the Anchor Bay disc, but you do get a seven-minute making of (basically the Tom Savini segment without the music and credits), three trailers (Italian, American, and European in English), the American opening credits, and a short gallery of Italian lobby cards and posters, plus really nice packaging with a DVD version included as well and a heavily illustrated booklet.
Reviewed on Novmber 1, 2013.