If you weren’t aware that The Girl in the Photographs was horror legend Wes Craven’s final movie, chances are you will be within its first 10 minutes.
There are several telltale signs in this artfully gory horror flick that was directed here last April by the executive producer’s protegé Nick Simon, with Victoria masquerading as Spearfish, South Dakota.
One giveaway is the title of the movie playing at the small-town cinema depicted by the Roxy. It’s Blood Relations, the original title of the late filmmaker’s 1977 cult classic The Hills Have Eyes.
And the ill-fated moviegoer in the opening sequence is Canadian scream queen Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) — a nod to Drew Barrymore’s cameo in Craven’s horror classic Scream.
“I’m going to kill you in the first five minutes,” said Simon, explaining how he phrased his offer to Isabelle. “She said, ‘Absolutely, I love it! Let’s do it.’ ”
There are many more pop-culture references tucked into this by turns playful and gruesome homage to classic suburban slasher movies, with Simon pairing retooled horror tropes with social commentary.
Another highlight is a sequence that replicates the image of a fashion photographer on his knees shooting a model on the poster for Antonioni’s 1966 thriller Blow Up.
David Hemmings, who played Blow Up’s inquisitive shutterbug, also inspired the name of Kal Penn’s character. He plays Peter Hemmings, an arrogant, insufferable Los Angeles celebrity photographer.
“Wes knocked it out of the park with Scream, so we didn’t want to do that movie again,” said Simon, who grew up in South Dakota.
The Girl in the Photographs begins with Hemmings and his entourage rolling into his sleepy hometown after he learns that Colleen (Claudia Lee), a bored supermarket cashier, has been receiving “artistic” photographs of brutally murdered young women. The images are an apparent homage to the American Apparel-campaigns that inspired Simon.
“Everyone in this country thinks they’re a photographer. Maybe I’m becoming obsolete,” sighs Hemmings, determined to discover whether these photos posted online are real or staged.
Since The Girl In The Photographs isn’t a whodunit, it’s safe to note that the culprits are two masked sadistic sociopaths who confine their victims in cages and feed them cat food before killing them and artfully arranging their corpses. This description alone might be enough to determine whether you’ll be checking out this festival feature.
With his cynical model girlfriend (Miranda Rae Mayo) and flustered assistant (Kenny Wormald) in tow, the egocentric photographer decides to hire his own models and make them appear dead, and rents a lakefront mansion for photo shoots and parties.
Penn has acknowledged that his smug, F-bomb-dropping douchebag who takes pictures with his sunglasses on is “ridiculous” but he had fun playing him.
“Kal loved playing this crazy person because he doesn’t usually get offers like this,” said Simon, who said he never knew what Kal would do next to spice things up.
His grotesque throwback’s subtext and twisted sense of humour are what attracted Craven, who died Aug. 30 at age 76 after a battle with brain cancer, he said.
“It’s scary-funny and its theme is the objectification of women,” said Simon, recalling Craven’s reaction after reading the screenplay Simon wrote with Robert Morast and Osgood Perkins.
“I grabbed your script, and it grabbed me,” the horror master responded.
Despite his illness, Craven was actively involved in casting, attended the table-read in L.A., watched dailies sent from Victoria and provided feedback.
As creepy as the material could be, Simon says genre pieces are fun to make.
“It was like summer camp. Everyone got along so well,” he said, recalling the 21-day shoot at the Inner Harbour, Ice Cream Mountain, Wellburn’s Market and Miramar, the luxurious 8,000-square-foot oceanfront home on Seaview Road that posed as the rental home.
One of the conditions the owners imposed was that no killing scenes be shot in the home, said Simon, adding the film’s “big kill scene” was shot in a Saanichton building that was once Mount Newton School.
As lensed by director of photography Dean Cundey, best known for shooting Jurassic Park, and all the Back to the Future and Halloween movies, the film’s classic visual style stands out.
“I worked with all my heroes on this movie,” said Simon.
“We wanted to have that vintage flavour. I can’t imagine anyone else besides Dean doing it. The problem today is all horror movies look the same.”
Not surprisingly, the colour red — whether on a Hollywood model’s bikini or blood-splattered corpses — plays as significant a role visually as the nighttime horror movie haziness Cundey pioneered.
The filmmakers also loved Wellburn’s so much they gave it a bigger role, Simon said.
They changed the supermarket’s original title in the script, and showcased its grocery bags and merchandise.
“We scouted a ton of different grocery stores and there something old-school about it,” said Simon. “It has such a mom-and-pop feel.”
The Girl in the Photographs screens tonight at 8:45 at the Vic Theatre.