The Black Dahlia Haunting Review

black dahlia

I had been looking forward to seeing The Black Dahlia Haunting for a while and was fortunate to catch a free screening of the film at this Sunday’s Days of the Dead Los Angeles Convention.

Written and directed by Brandon Slagle (who also appears onscreen as catalyst Malcolm),  the film has much to offer for fans of the paranormal, as well as true crime and horror fans.  Set in the present day, the film features period flashbacks that explore the life and death of Elizabeth Short, who was labeled by the media as The Black Dahlia.

The Black Dahlia Haunting has the look and feel of a considerably more expensive film.  Sporting a sleek, atmospheric look and feel,  seamless stock footage and guerilla-style shooting at famous Hollywood/L.A. locations (such as Griffith Observatory) are employed to great effect in creating a sense of place.   The modern day location where the Dahlia’s body was found is also featured as the site of a ghostly encounter.

Strong performances are delivered across the board in this look at the intersection of the past and present.

The film centers on Holly–played by Devanny Pinn, who delivers a standout performance as a young woman who comes to LA to visit her blind brother Tyler (an effective Noah Dahl) in a mental institution.  I was surprised to learn of Dahl’s young age–born at the end of 1997–as  his performance shows a maturity beyond his years.  Pinn’s transition to being under the influence/possession of Short is intense and well done.  A shower encounter between the ghost and Holly manages to be both creepy and somewhat erotic.

Short is brought to life by Alexis Iacono as a gritty, flawed individual and the character is not placed on a pedestal as seen in many previous incarnations.  Iacono’s Old Hollywood looks and take on Short create a portrait of a woman whose beauty disguises a less refined woman making her way through Tinseltown.

Fans of Ghost Hunters will get to see a decidedly different Britt Griffith deliver a compelling performance as a seemingly sympathetic doctor with a dark side and connection to the original killing.  Griffith capably handles both sides of the character and the sharing of much of the story’s exposition.

Cleve Hall (of Syfy’s Monster Man) exhibits menace and perhaps a somewhat conflicted relationship toward killing (at moments gleeful and yet eyes brimming with tears at others) as the captor and torturer of The Black Dahlia.

Brandon Slagle convincingly portrays a man troubled and haunted by uncovering a desert dagger/murder weapon which retains a powerful supernatural influence that is exerted upon him.

Jessica Cameron has a memorable cameo as a pre-Marilyn Monroe Norma Jeane who advises/consoles Short after Short attempts an improvised abortion.

Theories about the crime are incorporated and subtly interwoven with the larger story arcs.  Twists and turns abound in The Black Dahlia Haunting and the film is worth a second viewing.

–Cory Graham @ 2013

The Gaming Experience–Storytelling in Video Games

Narrative in video games has become a subject of much discussion lately–and rightfully so.  Video games can provide some of the most emotionally intense experiences in media because of their immersion into a world with rich experiences for players to discover.  What makes video games/computer games unique is the sense of “agency” and control that the player is given–the power to shift the direction of the experience through gameplay.

Decisions have consequences.  This is strongly felt in games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Mass Effect (from Bioware). Characters remember your actions and the course of the story shifts based on the choices you make.  It’s not uncommon to experience “regret” upon seeing the unintended consequences and impact your decision has upon a character in the story.  Unlike the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories from childhood, it’s not as simple as flipping back or forward a few pages to choose a different path.  The game moves onward and the player is left to wonder about what might have been done differently.

Emotional resonance comes from characters in which you’ve invested either responding to, benefiting, or suffering from (sometimes dying because of) your actions.  Controlling the protagonist of the story also places the player into the shoes of that central character as they make discoveries–sometimes awe-inspiring, joyous, or heartbreaking.  Deciding which character to save can become an agonizing decision the player is left to face.

Backstory in games can be conveyed in interesting and unique ways.  Discovering letters, audio logs, diary entries, memos, emails, videos, etc.  can provide information about what has happened to the supporting characters in the story and the game world as it existed, prior to the player’s entry.

The player can also choose to linger in a particular environment as long as the game will allow–and sometimes indefinitely–soaking up all the rich sensory details of a unique, fantastic place.  Signage, displays, advertising, graffiti, architecture, ambient noise, overhead conversations, and music (period music or lush game scores) can all help to create an incredibly vivid sense of place for the player.  Game series such as Bioshock and Myst have especially excelled in this regard.  Myst featured the tagline “The Surrealistic Adventure that Will Become Your World.”  And appropriately so.  Bioshock and Bioshock 2 showcased the failed 1950’s Art Deco undersea “Utopia”  of the undersea city of Rapture and the 1912 floating city in the clouds–Columbia–was the setting of Bioshock Infinite.  Worlds of great beauty can be seen in games such as Journey and Flower.

Games such as Dead Space, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill (among others)  immerse players in dread-filled, sinister atmosphere-soaked worlds and environments where they are menaced by creatures in such a viscerally strong way that the experience can sometimes be “too much” for certain players.  It’s too nerve wracking to continue on for some.  Unlike in a traditional horror story, the player is responsible for surviving the onslaught and has to fend off the dark forces–perhaps single-handedly.  Hiding one’s eyes from a jump scare or scary image in a game at the wrong moment can lead to the death of the player, whereas a film continues on without consequence.

Some games feature open worlds for the player to discover–visiting certain locales freely and often in the order the player wishes–versus having a strict, linear narrative, where the player is moved along a clearly defined path predetermined by the game designer.

Video games can also use the storytelling techniques of a Hollywood film by featuring “cutscenes” or cinematics—usually non-interactive scenes that give the sense of scale and scope of a big-budget Hollywood movie.  These epic scripted moments can drive the story forward in a way independent of the gameplay.

And much like in independent cinema, indie games afford players innovative, quirky, and artistic visions (via modestly priced experiences) that are free from much of the tinkering and restrictions that a larger film studio/game publisher might exert.

Strong voice acting can also bring video game characters to life, with many stirring and memorable performances being delivered by talent in this arena.  Mark Hamill’s the Joker is a particular standout, in the Batman Arkham series.   And unique, distinctive visions from game designers/creators  often feature game scripts with sharp dialogue and surprising twists as well.  Both laughter and tears can be evoked when playing because of these two traditions from the theater–acting and storytelling.

Whether every game is capable of being classified as art is debatable.  However, what cannot be denied is some games are capable of providing experiences as rich, resonant, and powerful as creative expressions in other entertainment mediums–whether literary, theatrical, television, music, or film.  Games are interactive multimedia in the best sense of the word–incorporating video, text, and music and drawing from the rich history of multiple media to craft some of the most compelling entertainment available today.

–Cory Graham @2013