Sunday, April 3, 2016

Say Cheese and Die: "Girl in the Photographs" fails on almost all counts

The Girl in the Photographs (2016)
95 min., rated R.

Sadly the last film credit from the late Wes Craven (who executive produced), “The Girl in the Photographs” is not the best way to remember the horror auteur. In spots, one can see what might have attracted Craven to the project, but what actually ended up in the final cut is far less impressive than what it tries to do. Despite the opening inclusion of a William S. Burroughs quote about the sinister obscenity behind photography, the film is definitely not a piece of art or some sort of social commentary. Tawdry without being shocking, scary or titillating, it’s not much of a mystery, either, nor is it a very good slasher pic. Movies like “The Girl in the Photographs” put into perspective how difficult it can be to pull off a hair-raiser.

In the sleepy South Dakota town of Spearfish, grocery check-out girl Colleen (Claudia Lee) finds a photograph of a dead young woman when she’s opening the store one morning. The cops aren’t much help, having the evidence in hand but believing the work to be some sort of prank rather than murder. When sleazy L.A. photographer Peter Hemmings (Kal Penn) and his entourage come back to his hometown of Spearfish for a photo shoot, Colleen makes nice with Peter’s hopeless-romantic assistant Chris (Kenny Wormald), while Peter wants to make her his new muse. Meanwhile, the pair of masked Loeb and Leopold-ish serial killers happen to be Colleen’s sadistic admirers—well, one of them anyway—and as they stalk her and keep leaving photos of their other victims, they have her right where they want her.

Competently shot by skilled cinematographer Dean Cundey (1978’s “Halloween,” 1993’s “Jurassic Park” and 2011’s “Jack and Jill”), “The Girl in the Photographs” is still one-dimensionally written and fetishistically brutal. Writer-director Nick Simon (the writer of 2014's inept "The Pyramid") and co-writers Oz Perkins (Anthony’s son) and Robert Morast don’t really seem too interested in much throughout, whether it’s planting motivation for our unmasked killers named Tom (Luke Baines) and Gerry (Corey Schmitt) who cage their victims and feed them cans of wet cat food, or making their characters genuinely sympathetic. As Colleen, Claudia Lee (2013’s “Kick-Ass 2”) acts morose and annoyed, as if she’s having the worst day in every scene, before showing glimmers of a personality, which is probably more than what was actually written for the character. Hopefully, better films await her and the very charismatic Kenny Wormald (2011’s “Footloose”). Miranda Rae Mayo also catches one’s eye as Peter’s wickedly jealous model girlfriend, but Kal Penn is terribly grating that it’s a wonder the filmmakers didn’t have him killed off sooner. Finally, Katharine Isabelle must take the work where she can get it, but she’s only on screen long enough to be the film’s first victim named Janet—perhaps a nod to Janet Leigh?—and lays out more personality than the actual lead.

Once it comes down to the climax in a rented condo, the film should have at least kicked things up a notch instead of petering out. Those whom we expect to see get knocked off get knocked off viciously, and the final shot is somewhat indelible, but it could have really packed a punch had we cared more about someone on screen. Evidently, somebody thought it was decent enough to be selected at the Toronto International Film Festival 2015 in the Midnight Madness category, but erase some of the talent involved and “The Girl in the Photographs” would be hard to separate from any forgettable direct-to-video horror pic.

Grade: D +

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