TNT, Chris Pine are the latest players to enter the serial-killer game
The bodies do pile up.
As an American consumer who spends a couple of thousand hours a year looking at moving pictures, there are times when the sheer number of mutilated corpses on all those screens gets to be a bit much.
How long has it been since director David Fincher said of his 2007 masterwork, “Zodiac,” that he sincerely hoped his would be the last serial-killer movie anybody really needed? Yet he can’t leave the genre alone.
On film, on television, there’s just too much money to be had.
Last year on TV, 495 “scripted originals” aired on a combination of streaming platforms, broadcast, basic cable and pay cable. It only seemed as if 494 of them pulled variations on the serial-killer theme.
Based in fact or daydreamed into grisly fake reality by men and a smattering of women, serial-killer mythology roams our collective subconscious. It’s the national pastime: an attraction/repulsion game built on feeding our dread and satisfying both our bloodlust and our desire to see rough justice done to the perps.
The other week in Chicago, Lars von Trier’s numbing procedural “The House That Jack Built,” in which Matt Dillon plays a methodical psychopath targeting women in the most clinically sadistic ways, screened for critics in the same 24-hour cycle as “El Angel,” a true-crime account of Argentina’s most notorious serial killer. For several days afterward, life felt ever so slightly grayer and flatter than before. That’s what uninspiring retreads will do to you.
The ‘Black Dahlia’ fascinates
Debuting Monday, the six-part limited series “I Am the Night” is the latest player to join our national spectator sport, and to riff on the unsolved, astoundingly brutal 1947 “Black Dahlia” murder case.
In development for more than a decade, the TNT series comes from writer Sam Sheridan, who is married to director Patty Jenkins. She handles the first two episodes with her customary forthright skill and a relative lack of salaciousness. (Jenkins shot her episodes after the success of “Wonder Woman” and prior to starting preproduction on the “Wonder Woman” sequel.)
“I Am the Night” arrives by way of Fauna Hodel’s 2008 memoir “One Day She’ll Darken,” name-checked with an “inspired by” notation in the credits. The real story is quite a story, though not much of it finds its way into the TNT series.
Hodel, now deceased, was the granddaughter of George Hodel, a famous LA gynecologist with a deeply unsavory reputation. Acquitted on charges of incest, he lived to a ripe old age. Many, including Fauna Hodel, believe her grandfather to be the prime suspect in the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia.
The fledgling actress’s dismembered body turned up in remote patch of Los Angeles. Metaphorically, Short’s corpse threatens to live forever. Everything James Ellroy wrote, including “L.A. Confidential,” owes something to the Black Dahlia. The subject has been revisited several times on film, in fictional noirs such as the 1981 “True Confessions” with Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall, directed by Ulu Grosbard, or the crazy, incoherent Brian De Palma “Black Dahlia” (2006) with Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johansson.
“I Am the Night” takes place mostly in 1965, though it winds back to 1947 and makes several stops in between. The story’s chosen interpretation of George Hodel, played by the superb Jefferson Mays, takes an increasingly important role in the generally drab and curiously uninspired proceedings. It’s an artful fraud of a performance; the material is phony enough to give Mays a serious tussle, but the actor wins out.
Chris Pine’s the selling point, acting up a storm as the disgraced, addiction-addled LA crime reporter establishing a link between the ‘47 Black Dahlia case and what appears to be a copycat murder in ‘65. Frustratingly, the ostensible protagonist of “I Am the Night” — India Eisley plays Fauna Hodel, searching for her identity and destiny in mid-’60s LA — rarely takes the reins of her own fascinating tale of racial identity and familial depravity.
The tone of the series veers from arch camp (Connie Nielsen, as Fauna’s fabulously jaded grandmother) to Grand Guignol extremes (there’s always a torture room in these stories, with the resident purring psycho yakking away).
Style counts for a lot with this genre, which sounds like a sick thing to say, but it’s true. The darkest corners of the past, or the present, become living nightmares in the right hands.