Head Trauma (Lance Weiler, 2006)
Head Trauma was the seventh movie I watched on February 15, 2013. (I love days when I get to work from home!) Previous to it, the highest rating any of those movies has gotten was a star and a half; my choices today turned out to be phenomenally bad. I was quite thankful this ended up breaking the streak; it’s a fine, if flawed, little no-budget thriller that reminded me a great deal of Lodge Kerrigan’s cult hit Clean, Shaven. Save that Head Trauma has a plot. And actors who can actually act. You know, little niceties like that that can make all the difference between something well-meaning but insufferable and something watchable that just misses the mark. And even that may be putting it too mildly here; Head Trauma does not necessarily miss said mark as much as dance around it, spitting occasionally and poking it with sticks, thumbing its nose at what Hollywood has conditioned average American audiences to expect from a movie. To continue that comparison from above, Clean, Shaven took much the same approach to filmmaking, I think, but Head Trauma, in my estimation, surpassed its churlish older brother by every metric I can come up with. Simply put, this is one hell of a little movie that far too few people saw.
Plot: George Walker (Vince Mola, in his only screen performance) is a socially-awkward, possibly mentally challenged, and previously homeless guy who comes back to the town where he grew up in order to settle his grandmother’s estate and move into her house, which is now condemned by the city. When he gets there and goes into the house to set up camp, he starts looking around, and disturbs Julian (A Dangerous Place‘s Jamil A. C. Morgan), who’s in the house “hanging out”. The two have an altercation that ends in George taking a header off the front porch. Julian hauls him home to be tended to by his grandmother Roberta (Meryl Lynn Brown, also in her only screen appearance to date), who knew George as a child, and the two of them spend some time catching up once George regains consciousness. Roberta orders Julian, in atonement for injuring George, to help him clean up the house, and the two of them form a tentative, unlikely bond. George also encounters Mary Sherman (Slice‘s Mary Monahan), an old crush from his high school years, and also needs to fend off the unwelcome attentions of Chester (Jim Sullivan, in another of the film’s “only screen appearance” actors), who wants nothing more than for the city to come demolish the place, since it’s lowering the neighborhood’s property values—oh, and who just happens to be Mary’s ex. On top of all of the human drama, George becomes convinced the house is haunted—he begins seeing things in the basement, which is currently flooded (and where Julian won’t set foot, though whether that’s because of the ghost or not wanting the spoil his trainers is left up to the viewer to decide).
Previous to the past half-decade, watching films on a repeat basis was a standard portion of my repertoire; I’ve seen probably a half-dozen films more than fifty times, and I know I have seen at least two over one hundred times (Scanners and Begotten). But in the past half-decade, I have watched only two films twice all the way through (I regularly skim films again while writing reviews, but I will only watch key scenes to fact-check). One of them is The Wicker Man. The other is Head Trauma. I originally rated it three stars, entered it in the document to be reviewed, and promptly lost it in the shuffle. I came upon it while trolling through the nether regions of said document, where the things to be reviewed are in chronological order, and realized how much this movie had continued to haunt me long after I had finished watching it; I sat down with it again almost a year to the day later. It validated everything I remembered about it and then some. Much of that has to do with Vince Mola’s performance, which is entirely believable, if a little cringeworthy at times. (The cringeworthiness is a big part of the believability, which is somewhat unfortunate.) And while—without being spoily—the ultimate resolution to the mystery/horror end of the deal is stock, it is handled with care and sympathy not often found in big-budget mysteries, much less shoestring indie films.
I hadn’t made this connection before, but Lance Weiler was half of the directorial team who made The Last Broadcast, the genesis of the found-footage film (in that it was the direct inspiration for The Blair Witch Project). That Weiler (his co-director on TLB, Stefan Avalos, is now working as a camera guy on the horrifying TV series Toddlers and Tiaras, which is scarier than anything in any horror movie ever made) has turned out two movies this damn good and never done any other features is a crime against humanity. Here, especially, he took a cast of (mostly) non-actors and turned them into people who, when on a screen, can rival the best of Hollywood’s B-list…and he made it seem effortless. The things about the movie that impressed me the second time around were much different than those that did the first; it was the relationship between George and Julian, so devoid of the stock Hollywood emotional shortcuts—for that matter, George’s relationships with everyone in the film, really. The one time Weiler does use a stock emotional shortcut, it makes perfect sense. (It’s the opening shot of the final sequence—without bring too spoily, I hope, it’s the shot where George is sitting on the curb, clutching an important article of clothing, warring with himself over the most important decision he has ever made.) And—despite the fact that it hasn’t been Weiler’s stock in trade throughout the movie, he gets Mola to pull it off. That’s talent, right there. Head Trauma is a movie far too few people have seen (373 votes on IMDB as of this writing), and it is one that has, or should have, enough broad appeal that it can be recommended to almost anyone—horror fans will find it a bit quiet, but should still like it; mystery fans will eat it up; romance fans are sure to empathize with either George or Mary; human-drama kids will love the way George and Julian’s friendship blossoms. It’s a movie that’s got everything, and yet has, inexplicably, been seen by almost no one. If you get a chance (the movie is usually streamable on Netflix Instant), see it, and sooner rather than later. ****