Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Nick Simon
Writer: Oz Perkins, Robert Morast, Nick Simon
Producer: Andrea Chung, Thomas Mahoney
Stars: Kal Penn, Claudia Lee, Kenny Wormald, Toby Hemingway, Luke Baines, Miranda Rae Mayo, Corey Schmitt, Oliver Seitz, Autumn Kendrick, Christy Carlson Romano, Eva Bourne, Katharine Isabelle, Mitch Pileggi
Serial killers tormenting a young woman with photos of their crimes attract the attention of a celebrity fashion photographer.
Caught in a small town rut of nine-to-fiving as a grocery store cashier, Colleen could use a streak of excitement in her uneventful life. Be careful what you wish for, because that’s precisely what she receives after a sick secret admirer starts leaving Colleen gruesomely graphic photographs featuring his serial killing handiwork.
Until a verifiable crime is committed, the sheriff couldn’t care less. Someone who isn’t willing to sit on his hands is famed fashion photographer Peter Hemmings. When Peter realizes his American Apparel-esque catalog spreads are being recreated using macabre models, fingers are snapped and an entourage is assembled. Peter temporarily trades Hollywood for his hometown as he embarks on a plan to outwit the insidious imposter while Colleen works to avoid becoming a featured centerpiece in the killer’s next picture.
On paper, “The Girl in the Photographs” can sound like an all too typical horror movie. A cabin in the woods hosts college-age kids partying downstairs and a comely couple breaking in bedsprings upstairs. Lame local law enforcement is as useless as a rubber crutch. Conventionally creepy killers with a basement lair taunt victims in cages. One of their masks makes it look like the murderer just came from the annual Purge.
Those initial appearances can be deceiving. Accurately articulating the unusual impression the movie leaves is more challenging than it would be if “The Girl in the Photographs” were truly a straightforward slasher. The movie isn’t at all complicated. Yet writer/director Nick Simon and his two co-scripters turn knobs and tweak details so that the familiar form feels oddly alien at the same time. “The Girl in the Photographs” doesn’t linger in a haunting way, but there is uniqueness in its design making it strangely unshakable from the mind.
In a straight slasher, Colleen would be the featured Final Girl and primary protagonist. Here, she isn’t. First billed Kal Penn is the focal point. Still, the script introduces Penn so casually and so late in the first act that the way his presence ultimately overpowers everyone else’s comes unexpectedly.
The irritating ego of Penn’s celebrity photographer persona, a pastiche of art stars like Terry Richardson, is initially insufferable. Penn plays Peter Hemmings as being so preoccupied with pretentious ennui that Penn himself starts off as seemingly disinterested. After becoming accustomed to Hemmings’ a-hole attitude, the cocky charm Penn lays underneath peeks through more and more, resulting in a character eventually more comically comforting than off-puttingly obnoxious. The humor present in the film, which stems almost exclusively from Penn, is delivered so wryly as to not be a laugh out loud distraction. It can be taken as comedy or as characterization.
Not every character sees that level of development. Featuring in only two or three brief scenes, Mitch Pileggi’s sheriff and his forgettable deputy are irrelevant enough to be phantoms. Nick Simon explained in a post-screening Q&A at Screamfest 2015 that the police presence is reduced like this to keep the plotline from turning into a procedural. Wishing to maintain a different type of narrative is sensible logic, although one can’t help think that the only reason to include the sheriff at all is simply to preempt the question, “why haven’t they gone to the police?”
One of the film’s marquee attractions for genre fans is the return of cinematographer Dean Cundey to his independent horror roots. Several shots emulate the recognizable style of “Halloween,” e.g. a masked maniac cocking his head at a kill and later wearing a victim’s eyeglasses over his disguise, but that seems more Simon’s doing than Cundey’s. Working with far less scope than his big studio features like “Back to the Future” and “Jurassic Park,” Cundey’s camerawork stands out mostly for being recognizable as that of an experienced journeyman. Lighting is striking and streamlined, though no imagery stands out as noticeably iconic. Cundey is clearly aiming for simplified storytelling.
Those last two sentences double as a suitable summary for the film as a whole. “The Girl in the Photographs” shouts loud enough to be heard above the slasher movie din while its echo may not reach all the way through the ears. It scores as high as it does because in spite of employing recognizable elements, they are repurposed with such understated weirdness that the film finds subtle ways to feel fresh. Factor in its South Dakota setting (how often is that state featured in horror films?), an unlikely mix of actors (Penn and Pileggi), a Wes Craven credit and Dean Cundey’s eye, and there is more than enough mixed into its concoction to turn “The Girl in the Photographs” into a different breed of serial killing slasher.
Review Score: 70