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Head Trauma (V)

In THE LAST BROADCAST, rookie filmmaker Lance Weiler pointed out how sensationalism and public perception can get in the way of the truth. In his sophomore effort, HEAD TRAUMA, Weiler explores how far the human mind will go to unearth its own buried secrets.

George Walker (Vince Mola) returns to his hometown to try and fix up his late grandmother’s condemned house before it is demolished by the city. He finds the property in a terrible state, its floors littered with refuse and its basement flooded from a busted water pipe. In the process, George befriends a young neighbor and is reacquainted with a girl from his past. Unfortunately, his efforts also lead to a series of increasingly bizarre and terrifying nightmares involving a mysterious hooded figure and a murdered girl. He does not know who these people are, and he’s definitely not prepared when the frightening visions begin to invade his waking, daytime life.

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Weiler’s first film that HEAD TRAUMA is an amazingly professional, well-made endeavor. The locations (especially the dilapidated house, which is as much a character in the film as any of the cast members) are authentic, and Sam Levy’s cinematography is nothing short of superb. The influence of Japanese horror movies like RINGU and JU-ON is obvious in the nightmarish imagery on display, but unlike most American efforts in this vein, this film comes with a carefully crafted, logical script (by Weiler and Brian Majeska) that actually pays off with a satisfying climax. Further, Weiler knows how to exploit the elements of Asian horror to optimal effect, integrating them into the narrative sparingly and at just the right moments, and making great use of Josh Cramer’s expert editing. This certainly doesn’t look like a film made primarily by newcomers to the industry.

The growling, hooded figure which dogs George through the story is an absolutely terrifying apparition, perhaps the simplest and most haunting monster to grace a movie screen since the debut of Freddy Krueger in the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. This snarling, faceless phantasm is bound to give even the most jaded horror fan a good case of the shivers. Almost as creepy is the ill-fated teenage girl that keeps appearing before the poor protagonist – sometimes up and moving around, at other points dangling lifelessly at the end of a scarf, and in one unforgettable moment crawling across the floor right at the terrified George. The first third of the film moves rather slowly and deliberately, but once these otherworldly visions begin tormenting George in earnest, HEAD TRAUMA is pretty scary stuff, indeed.

The biggest problem with the film lies in its cast, which is predictably comprised largely of unknowns and first-time actors. The use of amateur thespians in THE LAST BROADCAST was an asset to the production, lending credibility and a raw, unrehearsed feel to the “real” proceedings. Here, on the other hand, the actors are placed in a more traditional, linear narrative and asked to elicit pathos from the audience, and some just aren’t quite up to the task. Jamil A.C. Mangan does a decent job as the neighbor Julian, but Meryl Lynn Brown and Mary Monahan are not overly convincing as the young man’s elderly grandmother and the protagonist’s high school flame, respectively. Worst of all is George himself, played by Vince Mola. Mola has a Vincent D’Onofrio quality that would seem ideal for this role, but his performance is pretty uneven. One minute he seems to be playing the character as a sympathetic loser, the next as an alcoholic jerk. While Weiler and Majeska may have deliberately written the character in this enigmatic fashion in order to make the mystery surrounding his visions more intriguing, there is clearly a point in the story at which we are supposed to feel and fear for him, and Mola’s characterization isn’t quite strong enough to achieve either. In character scenes involving Mola and the other leads, the unpolished acting undermines the drama considerably and serves as an unfortunate reminder that, no matter how good it is overall, this is still an ultra-low-budget movie made by relative amateurs.

Another weakness lies in the final revelation about the thing in the hooded jacket and the young woman it has murdered. Though the truth proves quite logical and believable, most astute viewers will have guessed the gist of it long before the climax. That’s always a potential pitfall when making a movie of this type, and this film does not avoid the trap. Fortunately, Weiler ties all of the elements (including some very nice symbolism) together with great skill, avoiding the clichés of the genre and providing an extremely gratifying resolution in which justice is served.

HEAD TRAUMA is currently enjoying limited theatrical release nationwide, and will come to DVD on September 26th courtesy of Heretic Films. The home video release is packed with extras, including a director’s commentary track, cast interviews, several featurettes, and the obligatory theatrical trailers. Like its excellent LAST BROADCAST Special Edition DVD (set to hit stores on the same day), this disc is a worthy addition to any horror collection, and great fun for anyone who is fascinated by the process of independent filmmaking.

Weiler’s second feature film is not the groundbreaking masterpiece that his first was, but it’s also not a case of the dreaded sophomore jinx. The young director continues to show an amazing eye for detail and a whole-hearted dedication to professionalism, attributes that elevate him head-and-shoulders above most video auteurs. More importantly, he appears committed to producing horror films that are as intelligent as they are chilling, a devotion to quality that has become increasingly rare in this age of inexpensive digital equipment and bargain basement DVD distribution clearing houses. HEAD TRAUMA is another solid effort from this gifted filmmaker and should find an audience with viewers looking for a little more than slick, soulless remakes of genre classics. It does owe a great debt to both Asian ghost stories and earlier surreal cinematic terrors like JACOB’S LADDER, but it blends the elements of both subgenres with flair and style, and ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Despite a few glaring flaws, HEAD TRAUMA should be on every horror fan’s Halloween 2006 viewing list.

Official Score