Ashes, Claudia Lee, Drama, Horror, India, Jeremy Sisto, Johannes Roberts, Kal Penn, Kenny Wormald, Murders, Nick Simon, Photographs, Review, Sarah Wayne Callies, Serial killer, Spearfish, Supernatural, Temple
The Girl in the Photographs (2015) / D: Nick Simon / 98m
Cast: Kal Penn, Claudia Lee, Kenny Wormald, Toby Hemingway, Luke Baines, Miranda Rae Mayo, Oliver Seitz, Autumn Kendrick, Mitch Pileggi
Colleen (Lee) is young, pretty, stuck in a dead-end job in her home town of Spearfish, and has a jerk of a boyfriend called Ben (Hemingway). Her dull, unexciting existence is eased by the discovery of a photograph that appears to show a murdered woman. She take it to the cops but with no clear evidence that the picture is real, it’s quickly dismissed as some kind of prank. But Colleen starts receiving more photographs, all similar in tone and content, and each one more disturbing than the last. News of the photographs finds its way onto the Internet and is seen by LA photographer Peter Hemmings (Penn). He’s the type of edgy photographer who likes to think his work is “out there”, and he’s affronted by the fact that these photographs have been taken by someone else; he’s also from Spearfish so adopts an even more personal interest.
When Hemmings arrives in Spearfish it isn’t long before he meets Colleen and wants her to be the focus of the photo shoot he’s planning. Colleen, having nothing better to do, agrees to take part, and she recieves an invite to a party where Hemmings is staying. Meanwhile, one of Colleen’s friends goes missing, and the photographs keep coming. As the party gets under way, the guests start ending up dead, and Colleen, along with Hemmings’ put-upon assistant, Chris (Wormald), find themselves trying to stay one step ahead of a killer who now seems content to come out of the shadows and create their own murderous “artistic” showcase.
The last movie that Wes Craven was involved with before his death in August 2015, The Girl in the Photographs is one that he may well have been pleased with, but perhaps with some reservations as well. It starts off with the roadside murder of a young woman, the first of many narrative decisions that stop the movie from being an intriguing murder mystery-cum-horror thriller. Instead this helps the movie nail its colours to the mast as another serial killer movie, albeit with a neat twist. Where it wins points for originality is the inclusion of celebrity photographer Peter Hemmings and his selfish attitude to everyone; he’s so obnoxious you don’t know whether to cheer him or not. Penn is terrific in the role, and the script wisely includes him as much as possible.
However, the movie is on less surer ground when Hemmings isn’t around. The murders lack the kind of visceral intensity that the photographs point to, and the decision to reveal the villain’s identity by the halfway mark (after the movie spends a lot of time and energy hiding his face) allows much of the tension to dissipate, especially as the reason for the murders is none too complex. Director and co-writer (with Osgood Perkins and Robert Morast) Nick Simon shows that he’s learnt a thing or two from watching Craven’s ouevre, but the slow, deliberate, and rewarding pace of the first hour is abandoned in favour of the kind of stalk and slash routine we’ve seen way too many times before. The cast are likeable if not exactly memorable – Penn aside – though Lee is a sympathetic heroine, and the movie is enhanced by the contribution of veteran cinematographer Dean Cundey, who shot Halloween (1978) and all three Back to the Future movies. A little too nihilistic perhaps by the end but still something that Craven could, and probably would, have been proud of.
Rating: 6/10 – narrative muddles and tonal shifts aside, The Girl in the Photographs is a valiant attempt to do something different within the overstuffed serial killer sub-genere of horror movies; worth a watch though for Penn’s performance, and some subtle nods to several other horror movies that both Craven and Cundey have been involved with.
The Other Side of the Door (2016) / D: Johannes Roberts / 96m
Cast: Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto, Sofia Rosinsky, Logan Creran, Suchitra Pillai
Michael (Sisto) is an antiquities dealer who visits India a lot. He and his wife Maria (Callies) decide to make Mumbai their permanent home, and start a family. Six years later, the couple are struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of their young son, Oliver (Creran) in a car accident. They still have their daughter, Lucy (Rosinsky), but for Maria the pain of losing Oliver is too much and she tries to commit suicide. In the hospital, their housekeeper, Piki (Pillai), offers Maria a chance of speaking to Oliver one last time. All she has to do is travel to an abandoned temple in the woods near Piki’s home, spread Oliver’s ashes on the steps outside, and wait inside the temple with the door shut. The only proviso: she mustn’t open the door while Oliver’s spirit is there.
Of course, Maria opens the door, and soon strange, supernatural events are happening back at home. Lucy tells Maria that Oliver is back, but it soon transpires that Oliver isn’t the happy-go-lucky boy he was when he was alive. And when Piki realises what’s happened, she berates Maria for her foolishness. Oliver is a malicious spirit now, and will stop at nothing to avoid going back to where he came from. But there’s also another entity to contend with: the temple’s gatekeeper, a supernatural guardian who will also stop at nothing to retrieve Oliver’s soul. With Oliver targeting his sister, and Michael away a lot through work, Maria has to find a way of dealing with Oliver’s return, and the gatekeeper’s increasing presence.
A grim variation on The Monkey’s Paw, The Other Side of the Door wastes no time in getting its lead character to behave unbelievably and without even a first thought about what she’s doing, let alone a second one. When Maria has Oliver dug up in the middle of the night so she can burn his body for the ashes, you know that this is a movie that credibility forgot on its way to the multiplex. It’s the kind of horror movie that relies on a few jump scares, a series of strange occurrences (here all the plant and animal life, except for the family dog (for some reason), dies off due to the approach of the gatekeeper – though exactly why is a tough question to answer), and the occasional appearances of a group called the Aghori, Aboriginal-looking guardians of the dead who pop up menacingly from time to time but are there to do the same work as the gatekeeper (for some reason).
By the time the final showdown comes around, the characters have behaved too stupidly for anyone to care, and the final scene is entirely predictable. Roberts, who also co-wrote the movie with Ernest Riera, never quite grasps the idea that evil spirits disguised as children should look normal instead of covered in zombie makeup, and that long close ups of a children’s toy – for sinister effect – are only disturbing when you realise just how often they’ve been done before. As a result of these and other lacklustre decisions, both Callies and Sisto are left stranded, with Callies, whose post- The Walking Dead career is going from bad to worse – this is her third turkey in a row after Into the Storm (2014) and Pay the Ghost (2015) – unable to do anything more with a character who makes so many bad decisions that the audience will be rooting for Oliver or the gatekeeper – it doesn’t matter which – to take her with them to the other side of the door.
Rating: 4/10 – a movie that’s just plain tired in its structure and execution, and with plot developments you can see coming a mile off, The Other Side of the Door tries hard to be different with its Mumbai setting, but lets itself down by being so determinedly prosaic; it also fails to generate any genuine terror, and with the Aghori, creates a mythology that it never fully tries to explain.