No matter how you look at it, the deck was stacked against Nick Simons’ THE GIRL IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS, both in standing out from the pack of any number of movies that come out each year, and by having the dubious honor of being the final movie to be produced by Wes Craven. In theory, the first problem is fixed due to Craven’s involvement, I know it’s what got it on my radar, but it also marked the return of cinematographer Dean Cundey (HALLOWEEN) to the genre. Unfortunately despite all that, and being very technically proficient, the final movie to have Craven’s name on it is about as thematically deep as an American Apparel ad.
In the small town of Spearfish, Colleen (Claudia Lee) starts getting photographs of several women in various forms of mutilation. She cant be sure if they’re the real deal, or just a stalker with a sick sense of humor. Despite that, the pictures gain the attention of Hollywood photographer and former Spearfish resident Peter Hemmings (Kal Penn), who drags his assistant and models to the small town seeking inspiration. Along the way, both he and Colleen are drawn into the orbit of a pair of killers (Luke Baines and Corey Schmitt) with a seriously twisted take on art.
The thing about this movie that makes it so frustrating as a viewer is that you can see exactly what Simon and writers Oz Perkins and Robert Morast are trying to say. The movie lays out some pretty clear ideas about the dark nature of unwanted attention, challenging yourself artistically, and the sinister nature of the still image. All of that is present, but ultimately the film doesn’t say anything with any more depth than your standard hack-and-slash.
There are positives, though. For one, Cundey’s photography is just as masterful as you would expect. The screen is routinely packed with small little details that work towards building tension (something that the film does quite well, although due to a pretty loud and out-of-place score, you can’t really appreciate it) and as the film goes on, you find out that the killers are in the frame, but just slightly out of focus. Also, due to the film’s topic of photography, there are a lot of flash bulbs, which are used to reveal some truly creepy images.
The other positive is due to a truly entertaining performance by Kal Penn, whose nearly every line is pure gold since he’s playing such a majestic asshole. He’s clearly based off of the photographer Terry Richardson, whose work will never not make me feel like a scumbag while looking at it. But Penn isn’t doing some low rent impression — he creates a character who could give Tom Cruise’s Frank “T.J.” Mackey a run for his money. He’s a fascinating character study of a man who intrinsically understands his art, but he’s also that perfect blend of bored and egomaniacal, so self-obsessed he actually takes the posed killings that brings him home (a detail that results in nothing in the end except his presence) as a professional challenge.
Penn is the thing that kept me somewhat optimistic throughout the film, because I was expecting that the film would end (or at least have a scene) between Penn and the killers having a dialogue about the dark side of art, and how far following your muse can take you. Ultimately though, it just becomes another slasher movie, and try as they might, the actors are just there to provide a body count. It might be a bit more thematically curious than some of the others, but ultimately it’s all pretty surface level. I think in the end, I went into THE GIRL IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS hoping that the final thing Craven was involved with would be his fourth resurgence. I wanted another LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, or SCREAM, and I realize that those expectations are unfair to lay on Simon, who took the kind of help any of us would take, but that doesn’t stop me from wishing that this flick represented Craven going out with a bang and not a whimper, like this turned out to be.
Patrick Smith has written for publications such as Spandexless and Paracinema magazine. He lives in New Jersey with his extensive collection of T-shirts.