De Palma replays unsolved murder in 'Black Dahlia'

THE BLACK DAHLIA -- Universal -- $29.98

In a ruthless one-two punch of Christmas week counter-programming, both of Tuesday's big new releases are macabre melodramas. By far the classier is Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, based on James Ellroy's fictionalization of the most famous unsolved murder in our criminal history. In 1946, Elizabeth Short, a would-be Hollywood starlet from Medford, Mass., was found disemboweled, cut in two, drained of blood, and with a smile carved into her face. Her sad, cruel fate was so vivid an example of dashed American dreams that her story seemed a natural for the movies -- even her nickname, the Black Dahlia, grew out of a popular '46 murder mystery (The Blue Dahlia) starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.


But her death was so grotesque, the smart bet was that no director could ever figure out how to film it. De Palma shows you how in the best parts of this movie. This master of hyperbole in films like Carrie and Femme Fatale proves himself a whiz at the power of suggestion. The daring yet restrained shot that reveals the title corpse is Goya as gangster thriller. It tells us that in this film, Short's murder is enmeshed in the makeshift and already rotting connections of a young but rootless city.

So it's distressing to report that Josh Friedman's script fails to flesh out the director's vision. The hall of mirrors Friedman creates to reflect every aspect of Short's destiny merely increases the modest pain on lead detective Josh Hartnett's face.


Special features

De Palma imbues the imagery with an obsessive grandeur, even as the narrative falls apart. A pair of featurettes called "The Case File" and "The De Palma Touch" help explain just how he did it, while, amazingly, recreating Los Angeles in Bulgaria.

These mini-documentaries boast smart, informative testimony from De Palma's ace producer, Art Linson, and all-time-great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.


THE DESCENT --Lionsgate -- 29.98

Neil Marshall's horror movie about a half-dozen female adventurers caught in an unmapped Appalachian cave goes terribly wrong. The setup promises a wild combination of the emotional and the visceral.

Hints of infidelity and alpha- female rivalry, and the sudden death of one woman's husband and small daughter, promise that everyday conflicts will play out in this film with psychological thrills as well as extreme sport.

The first half-hour in the cave exhilaratingly alternates expansion and constriction, as secret spaces open up beneath the heroines' feet. But the action turns unremittingly claustrophobic and then becomes dumb-ugly, with the abrupt introduction of slimy and mysterious woman-eating predators.


The DVD, jampacked with outtakes, commentaries and interviews, provides Everything You Always Wanted To Know About People-Eating Movies (But Were Afraid To Ask).