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DVD Review: Head Trauma

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The Movie

While Hollywood plays it safe with a diet of remakes, re-imaginings and rehashes of classic horror movies it’s down to independent filmmakers to give horror fans what they really want – original, thought-provoking films that stay with you long after the credits have ended. Lance Weiler’s second feature Head Trauma is just such a beast.

The basics are simple enough. After a 20-year absence, George Walker returns to his late grandmother's home in the hope of saving the condemned building. Late one night he finds an intruder in the house. The ensuing struggle leads to George taking a blow to the head, and that’s when the fun starts.

George begins to experience dreams full of nightmarish imagery, including a mysterious hooded figure. Soon the lines between reality and imagination start to blur as the dreams bleed through into his waking world.

To go into more detail about the plot would be to do the film a disservice; one of its pleasures is the way the story slowly unfolds, giving us bits of information that we have to unravel in much the same way George does. Almost the entire film is told from George’s perspective and this gives the viewer a front row seat as George's psyche becomes increasingly fractured.

While George Walker is the centre of the movie, he has two important relationships that help add depth both to his character and the film as a whole. Julian Thompson is a young African American who gets enlisted to help him clean up the house and while he at first resents it, he gradually builds up a relationship with George that allows the viewer some insight into what the man was like before he disappeared 20 years before.

Equally important although having far less screen time, is Mary Sherman, an old flame from George’s past. It’s clear from his scenes with Mary that George is trying to save more than just his grandmother's house; he’s also trying to turn the clock back on their relationship. But, like the Moody Blues said “You can never go home” and Mary’s ultimate rejection acts as a sort of catalyst for the film's climax.

These three central performances are the cornerstones of the film and thankfully all the actors acquit themselves well. Jamil A.C. Mangan as Julian appears relaxed on camera, giving his scenes a natural feel, most notably when he bonds with George. Equally good is Mary Monahan as Walker’s old girlfriend, a character who goes from being initially welcoming when George arrives back in town to severing relations when it becomes clear just how unbalanced he is becoming.

Such is the nature of the film that it stands or falls on the strength of its central performance. Vince Mola clearly relishes his role, immersing himself in true method actor fashion. To see just how much of a transformation he underwent for the part, just check out the interview with the guy in the DVD’s extra features; it’s not just a physical transformation but a mental one as well, with Mola in real life being extremely animated and enthusiastic — the opposite of George Walker.

Still, good as the performances are, the real star here is Lance Weiler. With The Last Broadcast he created an excellent pseudo-documentary that not only preceded the similarly themed Blair Witch Project but surpassed it in every way. This time he shows he can handle a regular narrative structure, hooking the viewer from the get-go and immersing them in Walker’s hallucinatory world.

It’s with George’s nightmares that Weiler gets to show how inventive he can be on a minuscule budget. These sequences have much in common with Japanese horror cinema and show how to use other films as a springboard for your own ideas in a way Hollywood could never imagine with its Ring and Grudge remakes. The movie contains at least one scene as effective as anything you'll see in a modern horror film and one can only imagine what Weiler could do with a bigger budget.

Enhancing the film's sense of dread is the score by Brian McTear and Amy Morrissey. Music and sound effects blend perfectly to create an oppressive atmosphere that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Sound is often underused by the genre but all concerned here clearly realise its importance and the sound design is one of the most impressive I’ve heard on a DVD.

The film may cover similar ground to such films as Polanski’s Repulsion and even Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer but whereas those films offered no hope for the central protagonist, Weiler’s is far less bleak, giving us at least some hope of redemption for George.

If all you’re looking for is a high body count you’d better look elsewhere; this isn’t your usual dumb genre movie. It requires the audience to have a brain and rewards them for using it, yet doesn’t skimp on the scares.

I can’t wait to see what Mr Weiler comes up with next.

The DVD

Video

While sadly not anamorphic, the film's transfer is pretty good given the low budget nature of the project; just don’t expect it to look like a Hollywood blockbuster.

Audio

On the audio front the film really delivers. You get the choice of a 2.0 and a 5.1 soundtrack. If you have the right set-up the 5.1 track won’t disappoint as it makes use of all the speakers to really enhance the viewing experience, showing  just what can be achieved even with limited resources.

Extras

Several featurettes cover everything from blowing up a car (more complex than you might think on a film of this scale) to the scoring of the film. They’re informative if a little brief, with the longest only running about ten minutes.

The DVD’s best extra is a director’s commentary. Lance Weiler provides some background information on the film's themes and production that will be of particular interest to any aspiring filmmakers. Lance is an engaging talker and rarely lets up for the film's entire running time; there’s little dead air here. He’s clearly proud of the finished film and he’s got every right to be.

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About Ian Woolstencroft