Say what you will about Lars Klevberg’s retro-techno supernatural thriller Polaroid, but there’s no denying it’s got the perfect title. Polaroid. It’s not just about a haunted Polaroid SX-70 camera, it’s also so underdeveloped you’ll want to shake it.
Polaroid stars Kathryn Prescott (The Son) as Bird Fitcher, a teenage photography enthusiast who works part time at an antique store. When a co-worker brings an old camera into the establishment, Bird is excited because “it’s the same camera Ansel Adams and Walker Evans” used, and also helpfully explains – in the antique store, where she works, where this antique was brought in, as an antique – that “they don’t even make them anymore.”
But to be fair, they never made them quite like this. Every picture Bird takes with her new/old Polaroid camera features a mysterious shadow behind the person in the frame, and shortly afterwards, that person is murdered by that same, supernatural, shadowy figure.
The solution should be simple – i.e. stop taking photos with that camera – but one of the first pictures Bird takes is a big group photo with all her friends, so now they’re all on the killer photography-enthusiast ghost’s “to kill” list, and they all have to figure out a way put an end to the curse before the curse puts an end to them.
Polaroid is one of those bizarre horror movie product tie-ins – not unlike the Ouija series – which advertise a specific product by declaring, in no uncertain terms, that it will kill you. The movie plays like it’s negging the audience into taking a risk on a retro fad. (And if you were wondering where you could buy one for yourself, one of the characters helpfully declares “Someone shops at Urban Outfitters!” when Bird presents her camera at a party.)
It sounds like a ill-conceived marketing gimmick, and it mostly plays like an unexpectedly violent episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark (ahem), but Polaroid manages to shake things up a little bit as the characters try to figure out the rules of the game. Burning the photographs sounds like a pretty good way to stop the curse, until they find out that the photos are now essentially voodoo dolls. Set fire to a picture and whoever was inside that picture spontaneously combusts.
But although Klevberg manages to eke some creepy set pieces out of this corny concept, the script is a shoddy mess. The dialogue is often embarrassing (“Did you know people at school are calling me Scarf Girl?!”), and the internal logic is almost completely missing.
Case in point: Polaroid is one of those horror movies where the heroes try to tell the cops, here led by Mitch Pileggi (The X-Files), that they’re the victim of supernatural violence. As usual the cops don’t believe them, which would make sense if the heroes couldn’t prove that magic is real on cue. Except the filmmakers have already established that these people can prove it, whenever they want, in public, by simply damaging one of the photographs. The movie bends over backwards to include this hackneyed horror movie scene, even though it makes absolutely zero sense in this context.
It would be pleasant to report that the cast elevates the material, but most of the characters are indistinct and unremarkable, so no matter how talented the actors are there’s very little they can do. Even Prescott, who’s in nearly every scene, doesn’t go on a meaningful personal journey that makes us invested in her character or performance. Some of these people survive, many of them die; you’ll probably lose track of who’s who by the time their time is up. Polaroid is so simple and repetitive that it’s practically a lullaby.
Polaroid was filmed in 2017 and had already been released overseas, but due to the collapse of The Weinstein Company the movie has never officially been released in America until now. And now it’s very easy to see why nobody was in a hurry to untangle the rights. Polaroid is a hazy approximation of a serious horror movie, and it seems to be genuinely unaware of how ridiculous it really is. It would be camp if it was any fun.