(updated 8/18/04)
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Dark Stuff
(by Alan Jones for The List's Edinburgh Festival Guide)

It gathered mixed reviews in the US, where some lavished it with praise and others slated it, but director Marc Evans and start Colin firth tell Alan Jones that this is a classic horror film.

When Marc Evans’ My Little Eye showed at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2002, it felt decidedly now and wonderfully thrilling. Evans’ sharp slasher flick, which sat a bunch of egocentric teenagers in a lonely house, set the cameras on them and watched them snuff it one by one, was one of the most highly-regarded movies at the festival.

His second movie is a psychological thriller that again juggles levels of reality. Colin Firth, in his darkest role to date, plays Ben, a grief-stricken widower who must come to terms with tragic loss when his wife dies in a car crash. On the same day, an internationally famous rock diva is murdered and his anguish is eclipsed by a mourning globe glued to television news reports. Retreating into a state of mental breakdown and increasingly haunted by ghostly visions, Ben starts to lose all grip on his life.

Trauma is the first entry from the British-based Little Bird Company’s Ministry of Fear’ genre label. Executive produced by ex-EIFF director Lizzie Francke and James Mitchell, it’s hoped the film, which stars Mena Suvari (American Beauty) and Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) alongside Firth, will be followed by further horror projects including novelist Muriel Gray’s You Can’t Come In and author Kim Newman’s An English Ghost Story.

“The British used to be very good at horror movies,” says producer Nicky Kentish Barnes as Evans readies a surreal shot in tandem with director of photography John Mathieson (Gladiator) at London’s Waterloo Station, where Ben stumbles into a crime scene reconstruction. “Then the British film industry dropped the baton after Hammer glory days and seemed too frightened to take on America as the genre got more and more popular. Now Little Bird wants to support smart, sophisticated horror and, in newcomer Richard Smith’s Trauma script, it found exactly what it was looking for. Smith wrote a short story about a compulsive obsessive that got loads of awards from mental health institutions for being so real and true. His dark mind turned that into a treatment Francke developed for Evans. I’m a scaredy-cat when it comes to this type of material,” Kentish Barnes explains, “but Trauma has such depth to its confused state-of-mind reflections you just keep on discussing its much layered elements.”

It may share dark themes with his previous movie but Evans sees Trauma as a thoroughly different project. “My Little Eye was an exercise in looking at the objective camera,” he says. “It’s the complete opposite in Trauma—the story is completely told from a subjective point of view and Colin Firth is in every single shot apart from the twist revelation. Here I’m looking at those marginal people on the edge of society, on medication or homeless, who enter an extreme form of loneliness that is sublimated as possible madness. There has to be a grain of seriousness in all psychological puzzle chillers—The Sixth Sense was all about grief too—to make them interesting intellectually and for the suspense to work. The essence of horror in my view is when the door to your subconscious mind that should be shut has suddenly become slightly ajar. Reality merges with unreality so you aren’t sure where you stand. If you can get that right that’s the most terrifying situation any rational human being can endure.”

If this sounds like the kind of movie that will rely on special effects to conjure the unspeakable, that’s not how Evans sees it. “I’m not relying on special effects to tell this tale,” he says. “I wanted John Mathieson on board because of what he achieved visually on Love is the Devil. John’s unswerving eye, weird camera angles, under-cranked shutter speeds, stretch printing and extraordinary range of lenses—plus Colin’s remarkable performance—will destabilise the audience in a way that they won’t be sure what they can trust either visually or aurally. The one person we are relying on to tell us the truth could be crazy and what the audience sees could only be manifestations of the demons lurking in his mixed-up mind. I’m playing the horror game internally in Trauma that My Little Eye played externally.”

While he may be best known for playing 19th-century gentlemen and respectable love interests, Firth doesn’t see this grimy role as an absolute departure. “Marc and I go back a long way,” he explains. “We worked together on the Ruth Rendell TV movie Master of the Moor and I thought he was brilliant. While Trauma may seem a departure from what I’m now known for, it isn’t really. I was appearing in quirky features like Tumbledown about the horrors of war, and Apartment Zero about the human psyche’s dark side, way before I took on Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. So I feel I’m going back to my roots that were my territory in the early days.”

It hasn’t always been plain sailing. “I’ve had to constantly be reminded by Marc where I am in the story at any given time. Because Trauma is being done from the perspective of looking out from inside Ben’s head, in order for me to understand how I relate, I’ve got to know what he’s going to show the audience as I don’t see much with the naked eye. I also have to know if the scene is being over-cranked or under-cranked so I know how to modulate my performance because I don’t want to end up doing something totally inconsistent with the way I’m being photographed. All the visual trickery is being done in-camera, which is a relief as I’m not one of those actors who could tolerate dangling from wires in front of a green screen having to react to nothing.”

Both Firth and Evans are keen to locate the movie in a tradition of psychological horror films. “Marc is not shy of the generic aspects of Trauma and his love of Repulsion gives you a rough idea of the psychological zone we’re in,” says Firth. “The moment I read ‘cracks suddenly appear in the wall,’ I thought of the Roman Polanski film, which also deals with a lonely person in a big city apartment. Ben’s place is a converted hospital ward, which adds further resonance to the plot. And I haven’t even mentioned being covered in ants for some scenes—another significant symbol in the overall scheme of things.”

What he may say about his past roles, mainstream audiences will no doubt be perturbed by Firth’s move into the dark. Evans thinks he’s up to the job. “Colin is Britain’s best serious actor,” he explains. “I needed him to make the film appeal to the broadest audience. My Little Eye was a tough ride and it alienated many people. It satisfied hardcore horror fans but didn’t cross-over into the mainstream. I want Trauma to do that and hope Colin shifting around the tapestry of psychological moods created in-camera will work. All I can wish for is that the audience understands Ben’s tenuous instability. If they like Ben, and fear for him, but aren’t sure if they can trust him, I’ve achieved my aim. For therein lies the trick of the entire film.

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