Trauma (Blu-ray Review)
Release Date(s)1993 (January 25, 2022)
Studio(s)Republic Pictures (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
While most of Dario Argento’s films have featured American or English actors in lead roles, Trauma was his first full-length American production, shot on location in the Twin Cities. (He had previously collaborated with George A. Romero on Two Evil Eyes, where he directed one of the two segments.) Trauma drew mixed reviews on its initial release, and fans have debated its merits ever since, but part of that may result from the problematic tendency to worry about whether or not it can neatly be classified as a giallo—a distraction which has plagued the analyses of more than one Argento film. Trauma does have some giallo elements, but they’re much less important to the film as a whole than are its overtly Hitchcockian aspects. It’s actually a study of obsession in the mold of Vertigo, driven by the somewhat erroneous perceptions of its nominal hero, with a serial killer thrown into the mix for good measure—but even that borrows as much from Psycho as it does from giallo.
Trauma makes its parallels with Vertigo fairly explicit near the beginning, when David Parsons (Christopher Rydell) rescues Aura (Asia Argento) after she attempts to commit suicide, with the Hennepin Avenue Bridge standing in for the Golden Gate Bridge (and the Grain Belt sign cheekily framed behind the heroine instead of Horseshoe Bay). The problematic relationship between older David and the younger Aura forms the heart of the film. Trauma also uses a subjective camera to convey the weaknesses of its own protagonists, and it even has a false ending after one of them appears to exit the story, with the big reveal occurring as something of a coda.
Where Trauma veers into Psycho territory is with the addition of Aura’s domineering mother figure Adriana (Piper Laurie), and also in terms of the risible explanation for the psychology of its own killer. That warped psychology is seen elsewhere in the film as well, when it has a supporting character provide a facile explanation for the anorexia from which Aura suffers. (Further complicating that is the fact that she appears to be bulimic rather than anorexic, but that’s another story.)
Trauma most openly treads in giallo territory during the stalking scenes and the murders which conclude them, with the black-gloved killer using a strange handheld garroting device to behead the victims. That gave Tom Savini (and a few others) a chance to shine with the makeup effects, though the gore here is a bit more discreet than in other Argento films; this one appears to have been edited with the MPAA in mind. (Argento’s conflicts with the producers didn’t help the editing process.)
Ultimately, it’s the neither fish nor fowl nature of Trauma that may account for its lack of popularity, even among Argento fans. The film simply doesn’t fit into neat boxes, and while it certainly displays some of the trademarks of its director, it mixes in other elements as well. Yet taken on its own terms, it’s an interesting if somewhat muddled look at the effects of the various traumas that its characters have experienced, and indirectly, those experienced by Argento himself.
Cinematographer Raffaele Mertes shot Trauma on 35 mm film using Technovision cameras and lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release marks the first time that the complete uncut international version has been available on home video with its full English-language soundtrack. The bulk of the film was scanned in 4K resolution from a 35 mm interpositive, but some of the extra footage was derived from an older HD master instead. While those segments don’t quite match the quality of the rest of the transfer, they won’t be too noticeable to those who aren’t looking for them. The majority of the film looks quite good, especially considering that the negative wasn’t available, with a nice amount of fine detail, and fairly even grain throughout. Contrast and black levels are fine, though there can be just a bit of black crush visible, especially in the footage from the older master. Trauma has always had a much more muted color scheme than most other Argento films, and the color timing here replicates that accurately. This Blu-ray isn’t visually dazzling, but it does appear to be faithful to the original cinematography.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. Trauma was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, so this is a four-channel matrixed surround mix. The surrounds are generally limited to ambient effects like thunder, sirens, and wildlife, but they’re occasionally used for directionalized effects such as voices swirling around the viewer during a subjective moment late in the film. Otherwise, the bulk of the soundtrack is focused on the front channels. Strangely enough, while the workprint proves that production dialogue was recorded on set, it still sounds like it was post-synced, and it doesn’t always integrate smoothly into the mix. It’s still perfectly intelligible, however. The producers didn’t allow Argento to use any of his prog rock favorites like Goblin or Claudio Simonetti, so they turned to Pino Donaggio instead, who contributed a fine score— though one that’s a bit atypical for an Argento film.
Vinegar Syndrome’s Limited Edition Blu-ray of Trauma features a slipcover designed by Haunt Love, as well as a reversible insert for the case, one side duplicating the slipcover, and the other using one of the original poster designs. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with The Hysteria Continues!
- Audio Commentary with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
- Beheaded (HD – 23:41)
- Heads Above the Rest (HD – 18:02)
- Female Hamlet (HD – 17:11)
- Ruby Rain (HD – 14:54)
- When the Lightning Strikes (HD – 34:23)
- Additional Video Interviews: Actress Sharon Barr (HD – 5:53)
- Additional Video Interviews: Actor/Casting Director Ira Belgrade (HD – 6:30)
- Additional Video Interviews: Actor James Russo (HD – 3:49)
- Additional Video Interviews: Actress Piper Laurie (HD – 5:07)
- Additional Video Interviews: First Assistant Director Rod Smith (HD – 8:46)
- On Set with Tom Savini (SD – 8:02)
- Archival Electronic Press Kit (SD – 8:25)
- Video Workprint Featuring Several Extended Scenes (SD – 112:48)
- English Trailers (SD – 2:04/1:41)
- Italian Trailer (Upscaled HD – 1:42)
The first commentary features members of The Hysteria Continues! podcast collective, including Justin Kerswell, Erik Threlfall, and Joseph Henson. They consider Trauma to be an underrated film, and note that it also has much in common with the slasher films of the era. They point out that it has visual trickery in common with other Argento films, such as how some events are presented deceptively at first. They discuss the concept of trauma, both in terms of how it relates to the various characters in the film, and also how it relates to Argento’s family experiences, and his experiences making the film. They also did some useful research prior to recording the commentary, such as looking up an article from the Star Tribune where a reporter did a set visit during the production. It’s a solid track with some good information in it.
The second commentary is by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who is the author of the book The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess, and Horror Cinema, and also a book about Argento’s Suspiria. She states up front that she doesn’t want to do a scene-by-scene analysis of Trauma, but instead wants to step back and look at the bigger picture. She also insists on looking past the bad reputation of the film, and to approach it with fresh eyes while trying to keep subjective biases in check. She takes her cue from a statement by Pierre Bourdieu in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste: “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” It’s a good reminder of the way that personal biases can interfere with objective analysis, and a great way to kick off a commentary track for an unfairly maligned film like Trauma. From there, she covers a wide variety of topics such as the evolution of gialli and its relationship with the erotic thrillers of the Nineties; the uncomfortable nature of the romance in the film; anorexia and its meaning for Argento’s family; and much more.
Beheaded is an interview with Argento where he discusses his inspirations for Trauma; shooting in the Twin Cities; the romantic and familial relationships in the film; losing his senses of taste and smell from the chemical smoke used in the film; filming the nude scene with his 17-year-old daughter; the makeup effects; the editing process; and working with Pino Donaggio. Heads Above the Rest is an interview with Tom Savini, who contributed the severed head effects for the film, and also worked on the beheading device. He talks about shooting in the Twin Cities, getting to know the actors, and producing the effects (his best effect, involving a gelatin head of Brad Dourif, ended up on the cutting room floor). He also shows off his collection of the remaining fake heads.
Female Hamlet is an interview with writer Franco Ferrini, who explains how he developed the story treatment along with Argento and Gianni Romoli, including the research that they did on anorexia. Since the film was set in America, they agreed that the actual script needed to be written by an American, T.E.D. Klein. He mentions the connection to Vertigo, though he really feels that Trauma is a female version of Hamlet. He also relates why Argento is “pissed off” at Ridley Scott. Ruby Rain is an interview with Pino Donaggio, who relates how he came to work with Argento, explains the process of developing the score, and notes the differences between working for Argento and Brian De Palma. When the Lightning Strikes is an interview with cinematographer Raffaele Mertes. He describes what it was like as an Italian working with an American crew, including local Twin Cities talent. He says with the exception of the basement finale, they shot entirely on location, and he gives his thoughts about what Minneapolis has to offer, including how impressed he was with the skyway system. He also gives technical information about the shoot, talks about some of the actors, and closes by sharing his own feelings about the quality of the film.
The actors, casting director, and assistant director in the Additional Video Interviews briefly relate their own experiences making Trauma. They have a few interesting stories, but most of these are too short to get into any real detail. On Set with Tom Savini is an archival featurette with behind-the-scenes footage shot during the production. The highlight is a detailed look at the creative rigs that Savini designed for the final beheading (they’re glimpsed more briefly during his earlier interview segment).
The workprint version of Trauma is transferred from a vintage VHS copy that’s deteriorated over time, so the picture quality is extremely rough, but it’s a fascinating glimpse at a different stage of the creative process. The entire soundtrack consists of temp music, and there are deleted scenes as well as a few scenes that are edited differently than in the final cut. There are also moments where the production dialogue was later replaced using ADR. Vincent Pereira supplied the VHS tape, and he also helpfully provided a few notes about some of the noteworthy differences:
3:12 – Deleted scene.
57:34 – Scene edited differently.
62:00 – Original dialogue before replacement.
66:20 – Deleted scenes.
78:25 – Deleted scene.
84:20 – Shots before final compositing.
88:30 – Enya song later replaced by Donaggio’s Ruby Rain, plus some original dialogue.
92:18 – Deleted scene.
109:15 – Original dialogue before replacement.
It’s an impressive collection of extras, especially for a film that has produced such a mixed reaction, even among Argento’s most ardent fans. There are plenty of universally beloved films that haven’t been given a fraction as much attention on home video. In a sense, that’s entirely appropriate, because the films that have been unfairly dismissed are the ones in need of extra TLC. The best way of being able to approach a film like Trauma with the fresh eyes that Heller-Nichols recommends is to be exposed to a variety of different points of view about it. Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray does just that, and then some. Hopefully it helps people shake their own biases, and look at Trauma in a new light.
- Stephen Bjork
(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)