Nick Simon’s The Girl in the Photographs presents itself as a meta thriller about the exploitive nature of photography, particularly by men of women, especially in the age of Instagram and the selfie, where we’re flooded with so many images as to lose any sense of what they might morally mean. Though William S. Burroughs is quoted at the start of the film, the narrative initially, more explicitly, brings to mind Susan Sontag’s On Photography, in which the author observes that “the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images.”
The insidious illusion of control that Sontag explores, and its inevitably amoral, objectifying perversion, is embodied in the film by two male killers who follow, capture, and kill young women, taking pictures of their corpses in violently subjugated poses, circulating the photos to the next victim in an endless cycle of taunting, parasitic “art.” The murder photos resemble the work of a legitimate photographer, Peter Hemmings (Kal Penn), a gleefully debauched cynic and female-violation fetishist who feels that he’s being threatened with obsolescence by a stunt that’s rooted in the 21st century’s thirst for self-promotional affirmation. So Hemmings temporarily camps out in the town where the lurid copycat photos were taken, which happens to be his hometown, and falls in with Colleen (Claudia Lee), a beautiful young woman who found the photos, and who’s naturally being groomed for slaughter.
The filmmakers attach modern-media anxieties to a stalk-and-slash scenario that’s been in favor with horror practitioners since Psycho, without truly altering or challenging the objectifying tropes that are ostensibly under examination. Aware of this hypocrisy, Simon attempts to co-opt it as yet another purposeful form of irony. The self-consciously thin dialogue frequently laments exploitation while the imagery relishes it. Peter is given to saying things about how objects are so clichéd that they round the bend to become significant again, which is the very sort of transformation that Simon is attempting to bring about in The Girl in the Photographs. This isn’t supposed to be a mere slasher movie, but a cheeky essay on the sexism of the male gaze, as manifested not only in the genre at large, but across the whole spectrum of contemporary social networking. (Wes Craven’s credit as an executive producer isn’t incidental, as this film is clearly influenced by the director’s shrill, violent, and weirdly erotic Scream series.)
Occasionally, the imagery sells the flimsy concept with unexpected authority. As Peter and his coterie drive toward his hometown, for instance, the countryside is glimpsed through the car windows as a series of swirling impressionist yellows and greens, subtly suggesting that the line between art and “reality” for these folks is nonexistent. Elsewhere, sharp and blurry images are contrasted to disconcerting and eerie effect, usually to obscure the killers until a sudden reveal. Certain shots also boast a symmetry that resonantly suggests that life is merely a collection of so-far-unfound objects, readymade for a camera’s, or phone’s, aestheticizing.
But The Girl in the Photographs is ultimately devoted to formula. Simon discards his jumbled meta-media conceit, such as it is, at around the halfway mark, mounting a competently staged but generic killing spree that wouldn’t be too far out of place in a Friday the 13th sequel. The studious blocking and flip one-liners are less important to the director than the gory stabbings, stereotypically fey villains, and close-ups of the final girl’s derriere.