One of the many reasons I don’t like horror films as much as other genres is how formulaic they are. Put a group of people in a tight space, release a monster, watch them die until one or sometimes two heroes emerge to quell the beast, at least until the sequel. Repeat until the franchise runs out of money.
It was an old formula when I was young, and it’s only gotten more irritating as time has gone on. At this point, even when one film shines (“28 Days Later”), I’ve basically given up on the genre. But like the sucker that I am, I can’t help going back when I hear good things about a film.
So, along comes this week’s film “One Hour Photo,” a “horror” film in the Hitchcock tradition from writer/director Mark Romanek, all suspense and build-up leading up to some horrific climax.
“One Hour Photo” is the story of Sy Parrish (a creeptastic Robin Williams), a lonely photo developer, who at the start of the film, has been arrested for…something. As he gives his confession, we go back to the beginning of the story.
Sy is an overly friendly but rather harmless developer who takes a scary amount of pride in his work. He goes out of his way for one woman, Nina (Connie Nielsen), a customer who’s been developing her photos at this same store for nine years. Sy’s extra careful with her photos, and we soon learn that he’s not just a nice guy to her; through the photos he’s stolen, he’s been living a fake life with her and her family for years, and his obsession shows no signs of slowing down.
With horror or suspense films, focusing the story on the victims is the road most traveled, and let’s face it, it works. You see some person in danger, making the wrong choices, and you can easily identify with them, and even try to coach them to do what you would do. In the good horror films, a skilled team can even make the audience feel exactly what the hero does (Don’t believe me? Just watch “Toy Story 3,” an emotional horror film if there ever was one).
But kudos to Romanek for taking the harder path, even if he doesn’t quite succeed. Throughout the film, we’re stuck on Sy’s side, and it’s one creepy place to be, and that’s the double-edged sword the film carries. We get to spend some time with a thoroughly unhinged man, but we can’t connect with him, because he is unknowable. He’s a kind of weird most people will never encounter, and the too-quick explanation of his weirdness is too shallow to be taken seriously and too short to matter.
It has its flaws, but really “One Hour Photo” is a triumph of mood and suspense, and if nothing else, it’s awesome to see Williams escape from the treacle of “Patch Adams.” Trust me, that alone makes up for any faults.
“One Hour Photo” (2002)
Written and directed by Mark Romanek
Starring: Robin Williams (Sy)
Connie Nielsen (Nina)
Michael Vartan (Will)