Saturday, October 7, 2023

Living Hell of Ulli Lommel: THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006)

I know, I know. I declared THE ZODIAC KILLER (2005) something like "the worst movie ever", but I am here to tell you that I was wrong. I honestly had no idea how sharp the drop would be. Naively I thought, "hey, after a successful string of serial killer cheapies, Ulli may be inspired to invest more thought and creativity into the next one!" Yeah, yeah, I hear you laughing, but holy shit this movie is rough. Lionsgate knew what they wanted from a movie, as Will indicated in his coverage of GREEN RIVER KILLER (2005), Ulli associate Jeff Frentzen said in an interview: "Lionsgate was happy with the episodic 'kill scene after kill scene' approach and wanted more of that." With BLACK DAHLIA, Ulli served at his sugar daddy's command.

As I'm sure everyone knows, Elizabeth Short was a 22 year old woman, originally from Boston, who moved around quite a bit, but in 1946 settled in Los Angeles, reportedly with the intent to become an actress. Six months later, in 1947, Short's naked body was found in a vacant lot, cut in half at the waist. The cut was done surgically and the body cleaned with gasoline. There are a staggering amount of details in the case, with an equally staggering lack of answers, leading to a wealth of speculative fiction and speculative fiction masquerading as non-fiction. Of course, none of this matters to Ulli Lommel. He's got a buck to make!

In a moment that is literally irony defined, Lommel opens with a quote from the Geneva Convention stating that acts of cruel treatment and torture are prohibited. I guess that only applies to wartime. In peacetime, Ulli Lommel is able to inflict the most heinous of atrocities on unsuspecting (or in my case, suspecting) viewers. This leads to the credits droning on for as much time a Lommel can chew up with B&W and color montages of tight shots of a woman, presumably the Dahlia herself, Elizabeth Short (Danielle Petty), laughing up a storm while being taunted by an off-screen person (De Palma?) with various tools. Maybe she's just a visual representation of Ulli Lommel on his way to the bank. Finally as the credits peter out, the off screen person rubs a hacksaw across her stomach and she is instantly dead. Or maybe not, since the blood that is squirting on her face make her flinch, not once, but three times. No second takes! De Palma's movie is almost out!

While giggling (in what is supposed to be a crazy/creepy way) a girl in a school uniform and twintails writes some stupid shit in a book marked "666" (going on to appear in 2007's THE TOMB) about how the Black Dahlia represents the number 666. What does this have to do with the movie or the actual story of the infamous unsolved murder? Not a damn thing! And you should know better than to ask. This is an Ulli Lommel flick! Meaning, facts and logic are just things that society imposes on you to keep you down, man!

As it turns out, Kate (repeat Lommel offender Elissa Dowling), is an extremely grating proto-Margot Robbie Harley Quinn type, who has a forced "psycho" laugh that is reminiscent of Flipper and behaves like she's seven years old. So cool, right? Living with an old man named McCoon (Johnny Holiday), and so obsessed with the Black Dahlia is she, that she sets up fake auditions for aspiring actresses in an abandoned prison using on-line ads that are unlike anything that ever existed on the internet and computer printed signs scotch taped to the prison entrance. I know that a lot of people do a lot of things to get into showbusiness, but you'd think a piece of paper taped to an abandoned prison might be a bit of a red flag.

This is all a set-up to get aspiring actresses to come and audition in a prison cell with two flabby, mute dudes in costumes that appear to be items salvaged out of the Goodwill's dumpster. Apparently this bait n' switch works, as after luring in her first actress, she is tied down, sliced, stabbed and eventually dismembered. I know what you are thinking, you're thinking "hey, this means at least it's got some gore effects," right? Wrong! You forget who we are talking about here. This is Ulli Lommel and he ain't going to spend no damn money on effects when it could go into his pocket! Yep, it's mostly a lot of screaming, shakey-cam, smash-cuts and a few ounces of cheap stage blood splashed around and Kate jumping up and down, "crazy" laughing like she's trying to emulate the characters in a Rob Zombie movie. Joy. Because Ulli has to make his usual allusions of the military being the same as serial killers, we get strobe edits of Kate, in a camo fatigue t-shirt and cap, marching in place and doing push-ups edited in. It's every bit as fun as it sounds.

Of course this leads to Kate and her boys to leave cling-film wrapped body parts in an alley for the cops to find. Apparently there isn't much for LAPD's homicide department to do, so there are no less than six plainclothes detectives on the case, including the Police Captain (producer of all of these serial killer quickies, Nola Roeper) who shows up in order to ramble about how great it is to have bangers and mash for breakfast and how she met some guru who did nothing but sip water and look at the sun all day. If that is Ulli being autobiographical, this movie suddenly makes sense. At one point, in a later, nearly identical discovery scene, one of the detectives actually says that this "has the same M.O. as the Hillside Strangler!" WHAT?! Ulli drops the mic and exits stage left. The M.O. of the serial killer is in the fucking name, man! Hillside Strangler means that people were strangled in the Hillside area! It's not that hard! I mean, there's not giving a shit, and then there is mindblowing, next-level not giving a shit. Ulli does not skimp on this.

The movie is mostly just these two sequences, casting call murders and cops talking, repeated over and over. Kate lures in an actress, the boys kill her, they dance to old music, dump the body parts in an alley, cut to the cops standing around a bunch of cellophane-wrapped body parts mumbling about nothing. Presumably the body parts are wrapped so that we can't see that they are the same couple of Spirit Store pieces and a Sunday roast. In order to pad out the movie's running time, Lommel uses black and white inserts of Short laughing during very small parties in a very small rooms with an uncredited Tony Bennett on the soundtrack. This is an odd choice as Tony Bennett returned from WWII in 1946, but didn't have any recorded music until 1949. Oh wait, this Ulli Lommel is we're talking about here. No fucks are given or implied.

Also breaking up the monotony is one of the most rapidly promoted cops in history, 20 year old Kevin (no idea who this guy is, the credits don't list character names). Kevin, like all kids of his generation goes on the internet to find things out. He finds out that the oldest living suspect in the Black Dahlia case is this a fossil named McCoon, a producer who was going to cast Short in a movie before she died. So his hunch tells him that this guy - again, the only living guy who was ever on a suspect list of over 600 people - is, extremely conveniently, the killer. Because he is a cop, he gets McCoon's address and just knocks on his door. Pretending to be a Black Dahlia obsessed fan, he talks to McCoon and Kate (their relationship is never established or even hinted at) about McCoon's memories of the case in bland, vague way that feels, like all of the dialogue, flatly improvised. Thankfully, Ulli isn't one of those pretentious SOV movie guys who thinks that their POS is profound because it runs three hours long. Oh, don't get me wrong, he's pretentious, but not that kind of pretentious. Credit where due, I guess.

Kevin's internet sleuthing leads him to find a casting call for Black Dahlia auditions and decides to go to the suspected serial killer's lair without any back-up. There's a reason kids aren't promoted to detective right out of high school. Again, very conveniently, Kate gets McCoon to shuffle over to the prison on the double to meet this dead ringer for The Black Dahlia. Even though Kevin has a gun and the drop on the room full of the killers, he manages to bungle the whole thing, get tied down and is slightly tortured while his passed-out drunk partner finds out where he is via a beeper message. McDrunk drunk-drives / stumbles his way to the scene of the crime... so that he can bust the criminals. I have no idea what Ulli was going for here. The alleged partner is some detective who is always shown on the sidelines of the police alleyway sequences drinking from a hip flask. At the end of the movie, he chugs an entire bottle before vomiting and passing out on the street and being awoken by his beeper which gives him the address to find Kevin. I assume this just another one of Ulli's flailing, shallow attacks on authority, done with all of the finesse of a "Fuck the Police" sticker. Don't get me wrong, the real life cops on most of these serial killer cases give about as much of a shit about police work as Ulli does about making movies, but still. The drunken detective arrives with backup and arrests everyone. "But what about Detective Kevin," I hear you cry! Uhhh, he's dead... maybe? As the arrests are being made, Ulli intercuts b&w and color strobe shots of Kevin embracing the last actress who was auditioning for Black Dahlia and there's a shot of a cemetery thrown in, then McDrunk checks Kevin's pulse and the credits roll. Maybe Ulli was thinking sequel, or maybe he was trying desperately to be artistically ambiguous. Neither happen.

Lommel has many pretentions of grandeur with TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) and SEVEN (1995) style blown-out brightness, strobing, smash edits, oblique angles, etc. All of this is completely undercut by the utter lack of substance or talent. You could make a movie that is all style and no substance, it's an oft relied on trait in the world of horror movies, but you need to have a cinematic visual style, not a video camera pastiche. It also helps to at least have some sort of grasp of the subject matter. Honestly, if Ulli had made the monumental effort to try to do the entire thing as a black and white period piece (which he still would have gotten wrong) and actually tried telling the story of the Black Dahlia, I might have to give him a little credit, but he just does not care.

Even though I have no evidence to back this up, I'm guessing that Ulli Lommel read about DePalma optioning the 1987 James Ellroy novel "The Black Dahlia" and decided to cash in on the name since, hey, it's a news story and he doesn't even have to use any of the actual people and facts, so it won't cost him a dime! In a sick, perverted way, I kind of have to admire the cold-blooded avarice that drives his "filmmaking" career. De Palma's BLACK DAHLIA was first released to theaters in August of 2006 in Japan. Lommel's BLACK DAHLIA was dumped to video in October of 2006. Since Ulli's movie appears to have been shot in about a week, it is entirely possible that he may have decided to cash in after the promotional material for De Palma's film started. Either way, his goal was to cash in on the free publicity and it worked so well that he managed to reel in suckers who actually thought that they were renting the theatrical film! Say what you want about the De Palma film, but even though it sucks, it comes nowhere near the absolute abyssal depths of cynical, consumer-gouging movie making as Ulli Lomell's mindless rotgut.

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