The opening sequence of Trauma Therapy: Psychosis shows a mannequin bound to a wheelchair in a giallo-lit basement room whose walls are graffitied with swastikas. A man enters and smashes the dummy’s head off with a baseball bat – only for real blood to be revealed pouring from the body. It is an apt introduction to a film featuring “extreme wellness retreats” whose participants are drugged up and placed in nightmarish confrontations with their own traumas – a premise already familiar from Tyler Graham Pavey’s Trauma Therapy (2019), to which this is a sequel (with added psychosis). For not only will reality and illusion become confused in all the rôle play and psychodramatic scenarios that ensue, but those Nazi symbols will also prove to be foreshadowing for one man’s resistible rise to power.
Amid accusations of racketeering, sexual abuse and money laundering, ’self-help guru’ Tobin Vance (played once more by Tom Malloy, who is again also co-writer with David Josh Lawrence) has fled the US for Kirkcaldy in Scotland. There Tobin (whose very forename links him to the actor playing manipulative gamesmaster in the Saw franchise) continues to run motivational seminars and to select the most damaged from his audiences for special, all-expenses-paid retreats, where he discards the hopeless while drawing out the others’ strengths for recruitment to his cult-like Vance Institute.
This time he is lining up the abused Nicole (Megan Tremethick), depressive Jesse (Jamie Scott Gordon), timid Frank (Gordon Holliday), compulsive eater Lily (Courtney Warner) and suicidal Daniel (Craig J. Seath) for his treatment, which is designed to secure their commitment to him, or at least their compromising complicity. While Tobin’s former VP Victor Garcia (Vince Lozano) has apparently left the organisation and is now guesting on a live talk show run by Tom Sizemore (playing himself, in his last on-screen appearance), Tobin is being helped by new assistant assistant Dr Elizabeth White (Hannah New) and a unit of armed guards, while one-time retreat survivor turned Vancean acolyte John (co-writer Lawrence) infiltrates the new intake pretending to be on the same quest for renewal.
If you have seen the first film, you know the score: Tobin’s spurious sermonising, and a series of ever more unethical tasks, break down these already vulnerable, impressionable characters and build them up again into wide-eyed, card-carrying true believers in the Tobin cause, now bound closely to him by their own questionable deeds, and by the licence that he has granted them to break bad in the name of healing. The exercises, involving not just pharmacological intervention and psychological coercion but even physical torture (via the hilarious fiction of the ‘devil’s tooth leech’), are the meat of the film, as all these players are pushed and prodded into becoming different, if not quite better, people.
Yet Trauma Therapy: Psychosis, directed by ‘Gary Barth’, is perhaps more interesting as a parable of power. When its inexplicably charismatic leader commands untold influence over a weak-minded following with little more than bullying bullshit, one thinks of the hierarchical structures of the Third Reich, or of organised religion (here the Vance Institute is, significantly, run out of a disused Church), or of ‘disruptor’ demagogues like Trump, Orbán and Milei. Tobin’s repeatedly emphasised focus on ‘results’ makes his brand of therapy all about ends rather than means, even as everyone else, while made to feel newly empowered, is in fact being instrumentalised and exploited – occasionally even expended – to serve Tobin’s obscure purpose and to support his dominance. So this is a cult movie about a cult, satirically exposing both the emptiness, and the potential dangers, of so much therapy speak.
Playing hierophant and surrogate daddy to his growing flock, and blithely cleaning away the odd sacrificial lamb, Tobin will say – and let others do – anything to get what he wants. Perhaps in a second sequel, we shall find out precisely what that is, but for now what we see is the dynamic that lets a slippery showman like him so easily take charge. Somehow, that seems to reflect the world in which we are now living.
strap: Scotland-set sequel is a parable of power, showing how easily the vulnerable can be co-opted into service
© Anton Bitel