Trauma feels like a loud, ill-advised mistake, one that forever stains Argento’s filmography.
This late into Dario Argento’s filmography, the hallmark stylistic signifiers of his personal aesthetic have slowly been sheared away, leaving little more than a confounding mess. 1993’s Trauma, his only US-set, English-language feature, ports the voguish, Italian allure of the giallo genre to comparatively grubby environs of Minneapolis. Its failings paint a picture of a filmmaker-out-of-water story too disheartening to be truly tragic.
Perhaps it’s because the film centers around a tired and typically confusing murder mystery, or because the two figures we’re supposed to care about are a deeply uninteresting everyman (David, played by Christopher Rydell) and the sullen teenager (Aura, played by Argento’s own daughter, Asia) he inexplicably falls for. Aura escapes from an asylum-esque clinic where she’s being treated for anorexia before being rescued by David, who continues to shield and protect her as her parents are murdered with more and more bodies piling up at the black gloved hands of the film’s killer.
But the bond between David and Aura only grows ickier the more it unfolds. Aura is 16 (Asia was of age) in the film and shot just as lecherously as any other eye candy in an Argento film. The director showing off his daughter’s “technically legal” breasts only grows a stranger proposition when you realize the character is loosely based on his other daughter’s real-life struggle with an eating disorder. This just makes the Hitchcockian approach to the psychology of anorexia so much more disturbing, as what the film is really depicting is bulimia, but characterizing it like some catch-all mental illness to excuse the film’s weird sexual tone around this child.
Maybe on some level this stuff would be easier to ignore if the movie built around it were enticing on its own, but the mystery here is as opaque and purposeless as in pretty much any other giallo. To boot, Argento, while still doing fascinating things with framing and perspective, seems visually hamstrung otherwise. Pino Donaggio’s by-the-numbers orchestral score lacks the idiosyncratic bite of Goblin’s music and the production design doesn’t have sleek architecture and fashionable decor to fall back on. The editing rhythms are offbeat enough to sap the camera movement’s flair, to say nothing of how these English language performances, all spewing crummy dialogue, have less charm than subtitled Italian or subpar dubbing.
By the time the killer is revealed and that killer’s grotesque origin story is brought to life before the viewer’s eyes, it’s too late to salvage the picture. That sequence, which is so absurd as to be laughable, almost saves the movie, literalizing the motivation for the killer’s use of a weird garrote-mechanism to behead victims in such a way that is hard not to applaud. But we’re still left with an ugly, discomfiting mess, and not in the trainwreck intrigue kind of way some of the best exploitation horror usually musters. It just feels like a loud, ill-advised mistake, one that forever stains Argento’s filmography.