See also: “The Head Trauma of Independent Filmmaking”, an interview with Lance Weiler
In 1998 Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos released a $900 feature film called The Last Broadcast. This was The Blair Witch Project before The Blair Witch Project had even begun production. It was also a great deal better than The Blair Witch Project, with a much more cerebral and psychological approach to the initially simple narrative.
As the story of The Last Broadcast progressed, it became quite clear that nothing could be taken at face value, and the film was less about the shrieks and splatter of horror, and more about the elusive nature of truth—especially through the filter of media representation. The final minutes of The Last Broadcast slip effortlessly from its documentary format into a psychological subjective and cinematic narrative that is as disturbing on a formal level as the events themselves. It’s an effect Orson Welles would’ve been proud of, moving through the looking glass in a way, from the casual passive position of the viewer into the drama itself
In the years following the release of The Last Broadcast, Weiler and Avalos went their separate ways, which for Avalos meant Los Angeles and his own stylish follow-up feature, The Ghosts of Edendale. Weiler got caught in the gears of the Hollywood machine, losing much time developing a pilot for Fox that stalled. Regrouping, he returned to his home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and began writing a new script to regain his footing. The result is one of the best independent films of recent years, a dark character study set within the context of a disturbing and enigmatic tale.
Head Trauma is the story of George Walker, a penniless drifter who returns to his hometown to fix up and live in his late grandmother’s rundown home. The house is slated for demolition, but Walker believes he can convince the authorities to let him live there. With the help of Julian (Jamil A.C. Mangan), a young amateur comic book artist living next door, George tries to put the place back in order. The work proves to be overwhelming, and Walker seems to be haunted by a hooded figure that may or may not be lurking only in his mind. Walker’s nightmares are vivid but fragmented, and seem to revolve around this hooded figure’s secret murder of a young woman.
In Roman Polanski’s wonderful adaptation of Roland Topor’s The Tenant, the tortured protagonist Trelkovosky notes that if “you were to remove my arm, I would say ‘me and my arm.’ But if you were to remove my head, would I say ‘me and my head’ or ‘me and my body’?” The point being that if it is the head that contains consciousness, it must also be the center of identity. In Head Trauma Weiler presents a man who has lost his memory in an accident years ago. In a way, his life as a drifter is merely a physical expression of his lack of identity.
Like the films of Polanski and Nicolas Roeg, Head Trauma is a slow burn movie, the kind which gradually pulls you deeper and deeper into its own twisted reality. The story is simple, but the execution is far from it. Weiler takes the basic narrative and runs a series of ambiguous circles around it, coiling tighter and tighter until the end. Like the giant hedge maze in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the house itself can be seen as a symbol of George’s fractured, disordered mind, and as he moves through it room-to-room, he sees more and more of his mysterious visions. Like all ugly truths, he seems to know that he will come face-to-face with it in the flooded basement, that well known repository of hidden secrets.
Weiler keeps us guessing throughout as to the nature of George’s visions. Are they memories, the communication of something from the dead, or just nightmares? The film is very clever in introducing the grim reaper figure. George first encounters the image in a strange fire and brimstone Jack Chick-type comic he finds in a phone booth. It’s clever in that it seems to suggest that, at first, George’s nightmares / hallucinations surrounding the hooded figure may have been influenced by the comic.
Once again, as in The Last Broadcast, Weiler wants us to question the reality of what we are watching. Are we are seeing the world the way George Walker sees it, or are we really watching him objectively? The comic book element is used to deepen this idea in a very imaginative fashion. Wonderfully illustrated by famed comic book artist and writer Stephen R. Bissette and his son Daniel, the story within the story is something called Nothing but Grief, and is clearly about a final judgment whose gruesome depiction in black and white panels eerily parallel the events that unfold for George.
Whether this comic actually does appear in this fashion in reality or not is questionable, since it could be that George merely sees it this way. This ambiguity is played out right to the very end as images of what may have happened to George are seen being drawn by Julian in his own comic book story, a story that may have been sprung from his imagination all along.
This is something that seems to a compelling theme for Weiler and as he makes more films, we will see how he finds ways to design his stories to be viewed through multiple media formats which question the depiction of reality onscreen. In some ways, it resembles the work of novelist Peter Straub, who has perfected a style of storytelling that constantly shifts our point of view and allows one narrative to question the validity of another. It’s what has always distinguished his work from that of Stephen King, who presents stories on a more literal level.
Stylistically, the film may appear to have been influenced by the recent wave of Japanese horror films like Ringu and Dark Water, but it seems less inspired by those films than the early works of Polanski, Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and the remarkably modernist writing of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was, either by choice or accident, very much a precursor to the mode of psychological writing that would define a good deal of mid to late 20th century literature.
In story after story Poe used the device of the unreliable narrator to shift the focus off of the lurid events and onto a more elevated tension between the reader and the storyteller. In “Ligeia” for example, the narrator cannot seem to remember anything for certain at all and goes to great pains to let the reader know it. Almost nothing is certain in that very brief tale of possible reincarnation / spiritual possession. The reader is left with a sense that something disturbing seems to have happened, but is not given an easy way out of the ambiguity.
Poe’s stories also have a great sense of impending doom and increasing dread that Weiler has achieved quite admirably. This is a film with a great control over its tone, which is set immediately at the beginning with a beautiful and poetic aerial shot over a wintry forest that feels like the hesitant flight of a disembodied spirit. The dark, almost sepia-like color of the images and the perfect choice of locations create an atmosphere that never lets go of its grip. The music by Brian McTear and Amy Morrissey creates its own mood, sounding much like music that emerges from sound effects.
Much credit must also go to Jennifer Nasal’s production design, which does wonders with cluttered spaces and to Sam Levy’s cinematography which exudes a beautiful melancholy throughout. Images of Pennsylvania’s lonely roads, lakes, and forests are hard to forget. There is a particular quality to independent films that are produced regionally. They can appear fresh just by using the resources around them; locations ignored by Hollywood and actors whose voices express the accents and dialects far from the mid-Atlantic tones normally heard onscreen.
But it’s the character of George Walker that really separates Head Trauma from your standard Hollywood film. Weiler makes no attempt to make him “likable”. He’s a disagreeable, angry, disheveled, and paranoid character who is his own worst enemy. Weiler very cleverly sets up a potential relationship with an old friend, Mary, played with a strong sense of past history by Mary Monahan whose fearful reaction to George’s paranoia allows us to really see him objectively.
It is the impossible task he faces in trying to fix up a house long beyond repair that distinguishes him. Walker is a small man and his Quixote-like attempt to defy the odds is what keeps him from losing our sympathy. Vince Mola’s intense performance presents the character as a human being with great flaws, a small and inconsequential man who just wants his part of the American dream. But like so many, he finds that this eludes his grasp.
The DVD comes loaded with an eight-page booklet featuring excellent liner notes by The Grudge screenwriter Stephen Susco and six short, behind-the-scenes features that break the low budget production down. From blowing up a car on the cheap, shooting in a real and really scary abandoned house, creating the comic book images, to the aerial shots and unusual music score, these short features do an excellent job of demonstrating what it takes to make a marketable independent film.
Finally, we get a fantastic, virtually non-stop audio commentary from Lance Weiler who is open and frank about both himself and the production. It’s one of the best commentaries I’ve heard recently, and should be mandatory research material for anyone thinking about making their own film.
Head Trauma is a truly scary film that continues to disturb long after it’s ended. It frightens not merely through shocking scenes and intense sound effects, but because it’s about those things we all understand quite well: Guilt, remorse, and regret. Weiler doesn’t believe in giving up, though. The film leaves us with hope for George. He may actually find a way to redeem himself.