Don’t waste time on gruesome ‘Dahlia’
Perhaps I should define the term for more squeamish readers. Urban Dictionary explains torture porn as “horror movies having no story whatsoever but gratuitous images of people having random body parts removed.”
Tinseltown has in recent years busily spat out such films as Lindsay Lohan’s latest trainwreck, “I Know Who Killed Me,” as well as “Hostel,” “Saw” and their sequels.
And while surely no one expected “The Black Dahlia,” with its critically acclaimed all-star cast, to fall anywhere near the aforementioned genre, it nevertheless teeters precariously between film noir and straight-up torture porn.
In its defense, The Black Dahlia is far more dressed up than your average slasher flick. The film takes place in 1940s Hollywood, overflowing in sumptuous glamour and sun-drenched scenery.
Visually, the film (aside from the gore) presents some fascinating dichotomies as well. While many scenes portray the good life we often see in today’s southern Californian landscape (forget the recent fires), once night falls, the city’s pulse changes to the throb of murderous violence and treacherous crime.
The film’s two ingenues similarly represent two sides of the hero. As the narrative unfolds, Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), much like Archie of comic-book fame, finds himself entangled with his own blonde bombshell Betty, known here as Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), and the dark, mysterious socialite Veronica, or Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank).
Bucky also increasingly finds himself at odds with his buddy, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). They start out as partners, an unstoppable crime-fighting duo among Los Angeles’s finest. With Kay, initially Lee’s gal, in tow, the partners spend nearly every waking moment together. But their rift begins when the two earn the nicknames “Mr. Fire” and “Mr. Ice” during a boxing match to drum up support for a pro-police city proposition in an upcoming election.
In the ring, director Brian De Palma establishes Lee as the jerky alpha dog. Maybe one of Lee’s blows to Bucky’s head is responsible for the latter’s blind devotion to his partner. While Lee calls the shots, Bucky loyally follows along.
At the wheel, Lee inadvertently drives the partnership straight to the grisly murder scene of a beautiful young woman, whom the media subsequently dubs “The Black Dahlia” for her funereal wardrobe choices.
The Black Dahlia, eventually identified as a once aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), consumes Lee first. His obsession with solving the gruesome murder drives him to a benzedrine habit and Kay into the arms of Bucky ― as much as Bucky, with his heart of gold, tries to resist.
Fantasies of the real-life Black Dahlia murder, likewise, drive the movie toward the torture porn borderline. While the actual case remains unsolved, novelist James Ellroy’s wild imagination is the basis for the screenplay.
The actual details of the murder are enough to make one’s stomach turn: Police discovered Short’s naked, severly mutilated corpse in two pieces. Her disemboweled corpse had been robbed of its reproductive organs, drained of blood and washed clean. The victim’s face was slashed from each corner of her mounth to the ears, leaving her with a permanent, perverse grin.
The macabre facts are enough to pique an audience’s curiosity, but Ellroy goes entirely too far in his fantasized solution to the case. And it’s no wonder, because Ellroy himself is quite the perv: “My Dahlia obsession was explicitly pornographic,” Ellroy is quoted as saying in Slate magazine.
Pornographic, indeed. The Black Dahlia is rife with unsavory imagery: Bucky voyeuristically ogles Kay (before Lee leaves her) in her underwear as she prepares for a bath. Short is raped with a snakeskin dildo in a freshly discovered porno flick.
Later, the case claims Bucky, too, as he jumps out of bed with Kay and straight into bed with Madeline, who bears a creepy resemblance to the Black Dahlia herself.
So while it’s not quite torture porn, give The Black Dahlia a pass. It is little more than film most foul.
The Black Dahlia
Thriller / English
By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]