Let’s just address the elephant in the room straightaway: this is the final film horror master Wes Craven was involved in before his passing in August of last year. This film is even dedicated to him. However, Craven served as an executive producer; he didn’t write or direct. It’s a tragedy that his name has become intertwined completely with The Girl in the Photographs simply for being his last screen credit when it’s not entirely clear how much involvement he had with the final product. It’s overshadowed the actual writers, director, and the film itself. It’s also unfairly set up the expectation that this is an actual Wes Craven film. It’s not. No words can express just how integral Wes Craven was to the horror genre, and how much his legacy will continue to mean to fans. But it’s important to separate him from this film. To instead focus on the work of writers Osgood Perkins, Robert Morast, director/co-writer, Nick Simon, and the cast and crew. To do otherwise would be a disservice for both this review and viewers alike.
The plot is centered on grocery store clerk Colleen (Claudia Lee), from small town Spearfish, North Dakota. Photographs of brutally murdered young women have been strategically placed for only Colleen to find, but when she goes to the police, they turn her away with the belief that the photos are just a sick joke. As a result, the photographs increase in victims and eventually go viral, catching the attention of a pretentious L.A. celebrity photographer eager to steal the spotlight. So he rounds his crew and heads to Spearfish, placing them on a collision path with Colleen and the murderous pair behind the grisly photos.
The photographer, Peter Hemmings, is played up with pompous delight by comedian Kal Penn. He oozes condescension and delivers biting dialogue dripping in dry humor. Peter Hemmings isn’t a likable character, but he’s the most entertaining on screen by far. Horror vets Katharine Isabelle and Mitch Pileggi bring oomph to their tiny, bit cameos as opening victim and clueless sheriff, respectively. Beyond that, the rest of the cast fails to bring any soul or energy to their parts. Claudia Lee fails to elevate her character beyond a pretty face, which is disappointing considering the weight of the story rests on her shoulders. Perhaps it’s a lack of range, but Lee never seems to imbue Colleen with any sense of fear or urgency for being the target of killers who want only her to find mementos of their brutality. Sure, she goes to the police, but she seems more bored than anything. It’s Colleen’s lack of genuine response that deflates any suspense in the narrative. She’s just meandering through, and the viewer along with her.
What initially begins as a psychological thriller eventually builds into a slasher complete with requisite bloodbath finale. When we do get to the gore, it’s fantastic. It’s not just the gore that looks great, but the entire film due to impressive cinematography by Dean Cundey. He easily gives the film an aesthetic of a much higher budget.
While the plot unfolds in straightforward fashion, and on paper seems derivative of just about every slasher before it, the writers seem to be making statements on the world of the famous, and living in a day and age where anyone can become a self-made celebrity or artist thanks to photography heavy social media sites. I think. The humor is often so sly and subtle that it’s difficult to discern tone at times. Aside from Hemmings’ overt crass, hipster persona, not much else of the humor is so obvious. It took me a while to catch on that the killers were named Tom and Gerry, to give you an example.
The odd tone and subverted humor gives The Girl in the Photographs a unique spin on an oft tired sub-genre. The bloody climax is great fun, as well. Kal Penn steals the spotlight as the sleazy celeb photographer, and you can’t help but wish the story revolved around him entirely. Colleen makes for one uninspired final girl, draining the film of any suspense or tension. Between her perpetual apathy and the strange overall quirkiness, it’s a flawed feature that most will have a hard time processing.
The Girl in the Photographs is releasing April 1st, 2016 on VOD.
The Girl in the Photographs [Review]
A well shot slasher building toward a fun grand finale is hindered by a female heroine devoid of personality. The subtle, dry humor will likely confuse, and does seem to distract from what the film is trying to say.