The Girl in the Photographs (2016)
A young woman is terrorized by two stalkers who leave pictures of dead women for her to find. When an eccentric photographer comes to town with his crew to replicate the style of the pictures the stalkers are provoked to greater violence.
April 1st 2016
Claudia Lee - Colleen
Kal Penn - Peter Hemmings
Mitch Pileggi - Sheriff Porter
Katherine Isabelle - Janet
The Girl in the Photographs is perhaps best known for being the last project Wes Craven had any involvement with, where he served as Executive Producer. The film is dedicated to him too but beyond that it also feels like it’s really trying to be A Wes Craven Movie. A film where a woman is terrorized in such a way that no threat is actually imposed upon her and no evidence of a crime being committed, and the isolation that comes from that, sounds Craven-esque. The movie even has an opening sequence that is not entirely unlike the start of Scream through strategic use of casting a recognizable face in an all too short role. Despite this however, there’s a lot gone wrong here that prevents this from being worthy of being part of Craven’s legacy.
Colleen (Claudia Lee) is a troubled young woman in a small town of ten thousand residents called Spearfish. Struggling in a relationship with an worthless bully of an ex-boyfriend and working crappy shifts at the local market, her life gets worse when the pictures start appearing. Put in places that she would specifically see before anyone else each picture shows a murdered woman, so disfigured as to be unidentifiable. The local law enforcement led by Sheriff Porter (Mitch Pileggi) are useless, doubting whether the bodies in the pictures are even real. What also doesn’t help is these masked figures leave no trace of any kind, never appear on security cameras, never leaves a way to identify them or the women in the pictures.
Frustrated, Colleen takes to the Internet and writes about the pictures and her belief that they are real and tries to connect the pictures to missing women from other towns. This captures the eye of eccentric photographer Peter Hemmings (Kal Penn). There are similarities between the way the dead girls are posed with the pictures that Hemmings takes, not to mention he is originally from Spearfish. He is intrigued by what he believes is a tribute to his work so he decides to replicate the style of the pictures Colleen has been finding by taking his crew to Spearfish. Unfortunately the appearance of these outsiders provokes these two disturbing individuals and has unforeseen consequences for everybody involved.
There are indeed strengths to The Girl in the Photographs. Claudia Lee’s Colleen is a fine lead character and the film does work to set her up as an interesting character. Colleen has few friends in Spearfish other than her one friend Jill who is taken by her and her white trash ex-boyfriend Ben. Their back and forth seems real and based in a believably toxic relationship Far more than just that however it’s also alluded to that Colleen has run away from another situation somewhere else to try and restart her life in Spearfish. The fact that her life doesn’t seem any better and on top of that the pictures start appearing gives such an emotional weight Colleen has to carry. Claudia Lee displays this well, her frustration at her life, the terror of the pictures, and the loneliness of a newcomer in a small town. It’s one of the positive comparisons that can be made with some of Wes Craven’s heroines, she has agency but is fated to face her horrors alone. At least until she gets thrown in with Peter Hemmings and his crew of dull horror stereotypes.
Kal Penn as Peter Hemmings is a giant leech sucking the life out of this movie. Whenever he appears onscreen with his irritating affectations and poorly conceived motivations everything grinds to a halt. This is not to say that Kal Penn himself is bad necessarily, he is just playing an utterly insufferable character. It’s like he’s in a different movie and he’s such an unsympathetic douche that all suspense gets sapped out of the movie when he gets involved. Apparently he is intended to be based on easily loathable real life hipster photographer Terry Richardson but it begs the question: why sell Kal Penn so hard in the promotion when his character is this dreadful? Even worse is his crew of people are every single bad slasher stereotype all bundled up in one neat little package. He’s the annoying dude you’re waiting to die and his girlfriend the bitch who resents the “innocent” main female character. Then there’s “the nice guy” and the other two models are the jock and cheerleader stand-ins that indulge in the obligatory nudity and sex scene. As the blood leaves the movie’s body, so with it goes any originality it might have had.
Another maddeningly positive fact in this film’s favor is that it had cinematography from Dean Cundey. THE Dean Cundey, one of the most highly regarded cinematographers working today, lensed this film. Cutting his teeth in 70’s genre film he shot several of John Carpenter’s films for him starting with Halloween and then working with Carpenter again on The Fog and The Thing and his career utterly exploded from there. It is an enormous coup to have such a talented and experienced man to shoot your film for you and it’s all up on the screen. At times this film looks gorgeous with great steadicam photography and some very confident shots and fantastic atmosphere throughout the film. Where the movie impresses especially is the brilliant contrasts of light and dark, you never lose track of what is happening because it’s just shot so damn well and are the sources of all of the films best scares and atmospheric moments. The film looks so good I am honestly surprised it’s not getting a wide release, it looks better than some Blumhouse productions.
The crux of what makes The Girl in the Photographs merely okay when it could have been great is the overreliance on aping other horror films. This film literally could have removed Kal Penn and his band of nitwits and the film would instantly have been more interesting. What is the endgame of sending Colleen these pictures? What is the bizarre relationship between the two men planting these pictures? What was Colleen running away from that brought her to Spearfish, South Dakota? Unfortunately the shadow of Kal Penn’s infuriating character looms large over this movie bringing with him every lazy slasher cliche which results in a very underwhelming climax. It’s a bloody and gruesome climax for sure but beyond an interesting final scene this movie deserved better. It’s also difficult to ignore that this movie is quite cynically campaigning for a sequel before it’s even been released, poor show.
An interesting protagonist, curious antagonists and fantastic cinematography can’t save this film’s over reliance on tired, nay exhausted horror tropes. It is still a solid horror yarn but the hints at something greater are torturous.