A chiropractor welcomes her latest patient into her office one rainy evening, and although she's never seen the patient before as far as she's aware, they seem familiar from somewhere. Suddenly, the patient produces a hammer and knocks the chiropractor down, then attaches a handheld guillotine around her neck and decapitates her. The next day, across town, graphic designer David Parsons (Christopher Rydell) is driving over a bridge when he spots a teenage girl climbing over the railings. She is Aura (Asia Argento), a suicidal anorexic who David manages to coax back onto the road before she can jump into the river below. But what connection does she have with the murder that happened the previous evening?
Trauma was trumpeted as director Dario Argento's first American film, but the result, co-written with horror author T.E.D. Klein, was regarded by many as a disappointment, a retread of past glories that owed little to its change of location to the U.S.A. from Italy. However, watching it with the benefit of hindsight, the film was underrated at the time, with some inspired setpieces to appreciate, stemming from the killer's novel modus operandi. What is noticeable is the almost subdued air to the proceedings, as if Argento's usual glee at creating mayhem had been dampened by working with a largely foreign cast and crew who may not have been used to his methods.
Who knows? But the plot is as convoluted as you'd expect as Aura is sent back home to her parents and almost immediately we are plunged into a seance headed by Aura's mother (Piper Laurie), who is a medium. Naturally, it is a dark and stormy night and the trees are brushing against the windows in the wind, and the evening ends shockingly with both Aura's parents being decapitated in the same manner as the chiropractor. As the title suggests, Aura is traumatised by this, not least because she stumbles across the body of her mother in the rain, and sees the killer holding up the heads of her parents.
Yet that's all Aura recalls (until the final act, at least), because the stress has blanked her memory of any more details. She is reunited with David, who decides to help her by letting her stay at his apartment and protect her from the murderer who may have her next on the hit list. Meanwhile more beheadings occur with that horribly ingenious device (who exactly would manufacture something like that?) as Aura and David get closer to the heart of the mystery. Aura's anorexia should have given depth to her character, but instead is handy plot device to explain her general moodiness, and in fact everyone acts in a manner that simply furthers the increasingly ridiculous plot.
Nevertheless there are compensations if you don't mind the unbelievability - and that final set of revelations takes some accepting, in fact it's almost a cheat. Argento shows his skill with scenes such as the murder of a nurse; after the explanation that the killer only does their killing when it rains, it's ingenious to see them setting off the sprinkler system in the nurse's hotel room to create the appropriate atmosphere, and then to top it off with David running into the room to hear the severed head's final, whispered words. It's just that Argento seems to keep the audience at arm's length throughout, and with lead characters who are neither unsympathetic nor loveable, they're largely pawns on his chessboard. Impressive in parts, but Trauma doesn't reach the delirium of the man's better known films. Music by Pino Donaggio.
Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.
Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.