Stars: Kal Penn, Claudia Lee, Kenny Wormald, Toby Hemingway, Miranda Rae Mayo, Corey Schmitt, Oliver Seitz, Autumn Kendrick, Eva Bourne, Katharine Isabelle | Written by Nick Simon, Osgood Perkins, Robert Morast | Directed by Nick Simon
When Wes Craven passed away back in August of last year, The Girl in the Photographs instantly went from a film that had been flying under the radars of horror fans to one that was both immediately bittersweet as well as hotly-anticipated. Craven, shortly before his passing, executive produced the independent effort, and it will forever be the final film to bear his name. A sobering and depressing thought, regardless of the movie’s quality – which is of course what we’re here to talk about today.
Written by Nick Simon, Osgood Perkins, and Robert Morast, and directed by Simon, The Girl in the Photographs centers on Colleen, a young woman who is being tormented by a duo of masked maniacs who get off on sending her photos of women they’ve killed. When a California photographer, Peter Hemmings, catches wind of the bizarre murder spree, he travels to the town of Spearfish to conduct a photo-shoot of his own, and it’s not long before he crosses paths with Colleen and finds himself a target.
Not only is the name Wes Craven attached to The Girl in the Photographs, instantly lending it some degree of credibility, but so too is the name Dean Cundey. Fans of John Carpenter’s work surely know the legendary cinematographer for his undeniably important contributions to films like Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York and The Thing, and it should probably come as no surprise that Nick Simon’s second feature, thanks to Cundey, looks like a million bucks. The Girl in the Photographs, more than anything else, serves as a reminder that Cundey still knows how to shoot the hell out of a movie.
While Cundey’s gorgeous cinematography is the film’s strongest suit, its weakest, unfortunately, is the story – and equally problematic, the characters that inhabit it. The Girl in the Photographs, despite initially having a unique premise that seems intent on commenting on the inherent creepiness of photography and our society’s current obsession with it, ends up being an aimless and clumsy affair, one that struggles to gain its footing before devolving into little more than a by-the-numbers slasher.
Once the body count begins to rise and it becomes clear what kind of film Simon was trying to make, The Girl in the Photographs is home to some of the most brutally efficient violence I’ve seen in quite some time, which I have to give it serious props for. One scene in particular, involving two characters and a pair of knives, is shockingly horrific, and another (less graphic) kill is so expertly shot by Cundey that it’s downright beautiful. But the road getting to that violent release, well, it’s incredibly bumpy.
For much of its runtime, The Girl in the Photographs just isn’t very interesting, and worse yet, it never seems to have any idea where it’s trying to go or what it’s trying to say. At one point, we learn that Peter Hemmings is both jealous of and fascinated by the grisly photographs being taken by the killers, so much so that he plans on stealing their idea for an ad campaign he’s working on. It’s an interesting premise, though one that eventually vanishes without a trace. As for the killers, who are admittedly creepy both when wearing and not wearing masks, their motives are as undeveloped as everything else in the script.
As far as the victims are concerned, obvious final girl Colleen is a character so poorly written that she rarely displays a single discernible characteristic, which is huge problem given she’s the one character we’re actually supposed to care about. Every other character in the film, particularly the narcissistic Hollywood photographer, is downright detestable, though Kal Penn has so much fun playing Hemmings that it’s hard not to be entertained by how much of a ruthless prick he is. Hemmings is the only character whose motivations you ever really understand, as he makes no secret of precisely who he is.
It’s interesting that the killers in The Girl in the Photographs have elaborate plans that never really go anywhere, because the same can be said about the film as a whole. There are many interesting ideas at play, at least in the early going, but by the time the end credits roll across the screen, it becomes clear that those seemingly interesting ideas were nothing more than half-cocked ways to (clumsily) get all the characters in the same location for a night of routine bloodshed. Bummer, because the film seems to at least have some desire to be something more than a mindless display of human dismemberment.
If nothing more, at least it’s great to have Dean Cundey back in the horror genre.