The early 90s saw a lull in the American horror scene. The great slasher cycles were coming to a close and it was still a few years before Scream would usher in the neo-slashers that crystallised on the cusp of the millennium. In this brief waning of horror, the psychological thriller reached new and lurid heights – and it was in this moment that Dario Argento somewhat dissonantly released his one and only feature-length American horror film. That said, Trauma is very much of its moment as well, and for long stretches doesn’t play first and foremost as horror so much as a moody psychological mystery. At its heart is Asia Argento, making both her American debut and her first appearance in one of her father’s films, in the guise of Aura Petrescu, a Romanian immigrant to Minneapolis whose parents Stefan (Dominique Serrand) and Adriana (Piper Laurie) are both beheaded by a serial killer known as the “Headhunter.” With nobody to turn to in her adopted country, Aura finds herself taken in by David Parsons, a television newswriter played by Christopher Rydell, and the duo set out to discover the killer, in an echo of the amateur investigative teams of Argento’s early films.
Stylistically and spiritually, what ensues feels like Argento’s first film of the 90s. Traditionally, Trauma has been listed as a giallo exercise but it plays more like drab realism compared to the stunning visual feasts of Argento’s classic period. Most mise-en-scenes have a muted and misty palette, much as the action unfolds in anonymous spaces that feel plucked from the Hollywood backlot. At times a grungy 90s dankness percolates across these nondescript rooms, corridors and elevator shafts, but there’s very little trace of the extraordinary architectonics that were once Argento’s stock-in-trade, not least because the soundtrack never quite syncs up with the images in a convincing or sustained way either. Whereas Opera, Argento’s last great film, segued effortlessly between opera and heavy metal, Trauma can seem quite desperate in its kaleidoscope of musical ingredients, none of which ever arrive at quite the right time. In contrast to the excess of Argento’s greatest films, Trauma is fixated on Aura’s anorexia, producing a binge-and-purge aesthetic in which every gesture of flamboyance is expelled and disavowed for what often plays more like a late night telemovie.
Concomitantly, Argento’s baroque camera trajectories are starting to devolve here into more manic and chaotic tendenices that often play as a proto-handheld aesthetic, especially since the sombre tones resemble videotape more than celluloid. Yet this also continues Argento’s career-long assault upon the eye, his efforts to take ocularity to its very limits. Nowhere is that clearer than in the subplot that focuses on Gabriel Pickering, a young boy played by Cory Garvin, who happens to live next door to the killer. This is the most memorable part of Trauma, representing, as it does, Argento’s first foray into a classical American suburban space, which immediately restores the network of paranoid gazes, and facefied objects, that form the basis of his best work. Gabriel’s curious upward gaze towards the killer’s house is identified with his passion for lepidoptery, which infuses Argento’s camera with its most manic movement, whether in flicking across the butterfly mobiles hanging from Gabriel’s ceiling, or following the mercurial path of an actual butterfly as it leads the eye towards the window from which the killer gazes back. At these moments, Argento discovers a kind of grace in chaos, a way of pairing his cinematographic pyrotechnics with a proto-handheld aesthetic.
Of course, the discontinuities between Trauma and Argento’s earlier work only make the continuities more striking. As always, Argento’s killer exists as an abstraction of voice and gaze – in one scene, for an example, a mute and immobile hospital patient is forced to watch the Headhunter as he performs one of his dastardly deeds, a cipher for the complete ocular debilitation that Argento aims to foist upon his terrified audience. As with Phenomena, Opera and The Black Cat, Argento also associates this abstracted gaze, in particular, with that of the animal kingdom, except that in this case we don’t have insects, or birds, or cats, but reptiles – the lizards that form the sole witnesses to the Headhunter’s opening crime, and whom he actually steals from their terrarium at the crime scene, as if recognising a gaze that is commensurate to his own. From then on the entire reptilian and amphibious world becomes a cipher for the killer, culminating with a sequence in which Aura ingests psychotropic berries that give her a hallucination of a frog, then a hallucination of breaking open a video cassette, before finally accessing the repressed memories of her parents’ murder that she has been searching for. As in both Opera and The Black Cat, animal perception and mass media fuse here into a new kind of dispersed gaze, and distributed perspective, equal part frog and VHS.
However, if this fixation on alien gazes evolves fairly smoothly into Trauma, its figurative counterpart takes a radical new direction. In tandem with these abstracted gazes and voices, Argento has perennially focused on faces flung through windows, as if trying to pinpoint the exact moment at which a gaze becomes a screen and a face becomes an interface. From the very beginning, Trauma indicates an exhaustion with this trope, by way of a kitsch toy-like recreation of scaffolds from the French Revolution, a period when beheadings had become all but commonplace. Accordingly, windows largely vanish from Argento’s mise-en-scene, at least in conjunction with heads. The murder of Aura’s parents occurs in the midst of a séance in an ancient American Gothic manor, and while rain and wind might beat against the windows, and the branch of a tree may actually puncture one, the decapitation in question occurs out in the depths of the surrounding park, far away from the windows’ purview. Likewise, the Headhunter carries a mechanical noose to decapitate their victims, a functional and fairly uncinematic device in contrast to the glassy interfaces of Argento’s classic thrillers.
Only at the end of the film do we return to this interface motif, when David and Aura decide that her psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, played by Frederic Forrest, is likely to be the killer, and join a police cavalcade to chase him down. This climaxes with a car accident that sees Judd’s face projected through the driver’s window and the trunk pop open to reveal the bodies of all the Headhunter’s victims. In an earlier Argento film, this arrival at what appears to be the interface would be enough to solve the crime but here it ushers in the most original and striking part of Trauma – a kind of fourth act that both returns us to the suburbia of the film’s best scenes but also overlays it with the heightened hush, quietness and emergence that signals the emergence of a twist that, in films released at this time, could be certain to produce such a profound sense of estrangement and derealisation that it would recalibrate the parameters of the entire narrative. In other words, this is the moment when Argento fully morphs from horror into psychological thriller, and it gravitates him back towards the heightened tactility of his 70s films, which in turn makes the gaze and voice of the killer (who is of course not Dr. Judd) feel everywhere and nowhere in a completely new way. Not only that, but this final act also brings everything that seemed incongruous or inexplicable about the film proper to a satisfying and ingenious resolution, to the point where it almost supplants the film, or becomes a synecdoche for it, born out of the trauma of adapting to a new decade.