A psychological drama with an emphasis on the “psycho,” Head Trauma is the second film from ultra-indie auteur Lance Weiler. Weiler’s first film was 1998’s The Last Broadcast. That no-budget horror flick received a brief hiccup of publicity for being: A) the first feature to be shot, edited and screened (via satellite) using solely digital technology, and B) a major influence on 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Honestly, the first designation is the more significant. The Last Broadcast was assembled on home computers for a mere $900, making it an impressive precursor to today’s rampant digital filmmaking scene. (Both Last Broadcast and Blair Witch borrowed a healthy dose of inspiration from 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, rendering that “who made who” debate a bit moot.)
With a few well-placed edits, the film shocks us to our senses and introduces us to George Walker (Vince Mola, exuding all the frumpy charm of a no-budget Paul Giamatti). George is a balding, middle-aged drifter who wanders back into his dinky hometown to reclaim his deceased grandmother’s abandoned house. Seems George has been missing for the last 20 years, and we as viewers are no more privy to what the guy’s been up to than his old neighbors. Is he a homeless alcoholic? Did he just get out of jail? An asylum? What’s his story?
Seems granny’s decrepit home has been condemned and is in the process of being demolished. Although George does his best to save the building, this looks like a losing battle. The neighbors want the house torn down, the basement is flooded and George isn’t exactly Ty Pennington. Of course, home remodeling is the least of George’s worries.
On the heels of his return to the old homestead, George is plagued by a series of chilling nightmares. Recurring images of dark hotel rooms, eerie woods, a dead female body and a menacing figure in a fur-lined parka are soon slipping from George’s dreams and creeping into his daylight hours. Is George nuts? Is the house haunted? Is he being gaslighted? Is this a multiple choice question?
With his second outing, Weiler proves himself a seriously skilled director. His tone has much in common with the recent spate of Japanese horror films. There’s the emphasis on atmosphere, the sad, restless ghosts of the past, the jittery camerawork. It’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t snapped him up to helm one of the countless J-horror remakes taking place stateside (The Ring, The Grudge, Pulse). It’s almost depressing to think what Weiler could have done with the recent revision of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 chiller Pulse. I can’t guarantee it would have been better than director Jim Sonzero’s pedantic version, but surely it could have maintained more of Kurosawa’s sad and lonely brand of existential horror.
In the years since The Last Broadcast came out, Hollywood has caught up to Weiler a bit. It’s no longer unusual to see a major release shot on video. (George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez are just a couple of the big-time “all digital” converts.) Weiler seems to know the strengths and weaknesses of the medium and plays well to both. Perhaps credit should be doled out to director of photography Sam Levy or to production designer Jennifer Nasal. The sets, locations and videography look perfect--dark, eerie and full of isolated dread. Most importantly, the film feels real, never overly “manufactured” like yet another hyper-stylized, mega-Gothic Se7en clone.
Head Trauma labors long and hard to build up its mood of menace. Though “jump out of your seat” moments are minimal, the film slowly saturates itself in shades of dread. By the end, we are both fascinated by the mystery surrounding George and a bit frightened to learn the truth. Do we really want to open the closet door and find a monster hiding there, or would we rather just close our eyes and keep whistling in the dark? Whereas most modern “survival horror” films (Saw, Hostel) are all about showing us the grisly goods, Head Trauma nicely plays with the “do we or don’t we” quandary.
By the time it reaches its rather logical conclusion, Head Trauma has become more hauntingly sad than hauntingly scary. Those looking for “jump out of your skin” thrills would do better to adjust their expectations. This is more of a moody, old-fashioned “icewater in your veins” fright-fest--and all the better for it.
Filmmaker Lance Weiler will be in Albuquerque on Aug. 26 and 27. He will be doing Q&A sessions during Saturday and Sunday screenings at the Guild Cinema.
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