“The Girl in the Photographs” is a slasher movie filled with smug and self-absorbed characters who are not nearly as clever as they obviously assume they are. Unfortunately, this unsavory mix of gruesomely bloody mayhem and genre convention tweaking could easily pass as something produced by the most insufferable of these twits, a hipster L.A. photographer who delights in shooting transgressive scenes of fake violence. When psychos in his flyover-country hometown start to imitate his ghoulish handiwork, the supercilious shutterbug is driven to investigate by equal measures curiosity and professional jealousy. Trouble is, this initially promising premise quickly devolves into an excuse for standard-issue bloodletting, and the film emerges as something best left to undiscriminating VOD streamers and niche festival attendees.
The plot is triggered by unfortunate events that beset Colleen (Claudia Lee), a restless young woman who becomes even more restless, and ever more terrified, when somebody starts to leave grisly “presents” for her at the small-town South Dakota grocery store where she works: detailed photographs of what appear to be recent victims of savage violence. The local sheriff — who, even by genre standards, is astounding obtuse, if not willfully stupid — is slow to respond, dismissing the photos as sick-humored fakery. But when the photos go viral, they attract the serious attention of Peter Hemmings (Kal Penn), who can’t help noticing the similarity between the ghastly images and his own trademark output.
So Hemmings travels to the South Dakota hamlet — which just happens to be his birthplace — with an entourage of similarly self-centered models (including his girlfriend) and his harried assistant. Colleen pretends to be unimpressed by the snarky celebrity, but accepts an invitation to the secluded rental house where Hemmings and his crew plan to party hearty and shoot photos. Naturally, the aforementioned psychos crash the party and, just as naturally, they make bloody nuisances of themselves.
Director Nick Simon, who cobbled together the script with co-writers Osgood Perkins and Robert Morast, doesn’t generate much in the way of suspense — a failing only partly attributable to fact that most of the murder victims are unpleasant caricatures whose deaths evoke snickers, not shock.
Penn gets a few good laughs as he hard-sells Hemmings’ overbearing egocentricity, often sounding like he’s channeling Jeff Goldblum as he warp-speeds through dialogue while exuding the condescending attitude of a man absolutely certain he is the smartest fellow in the zip code. (He also delivers some incongruously angry zingers at the expense of AT&T, Dell Computers and other brand names.) But the other performances range from undistinguished to barely adequate — although Mitch Pileggi deserves some props for delivering his lines with a straight face as the clueless sheriff — and the production values (even the lensing by the normally reliable Dean Cundey) are nondescript.
If you pay close attention, by the way, you’ll note that the psychos are named Tom and Jerry, which pretty much illustrates the level of humor in “The Girl in the Photographs.” Unfortunately, the film appears to be the final screen credit of the late horror master Wes Craven (“Scream,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street”), who is listed as executive producer, and to whom the film is dedicated during the closing credits. That’s a nice gesture but, really, he deserved better.