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You can pretty much lay down all the money in your pockets and guess correct what a horror movie with a film camera in the story is going to be about, the trope one as old as the camera itself with purveyors of the art long using it to trick the observer. With Camera Obscura, a named derived from the process by which early works of projected imagery were created, comes another in the genre, a story seeped in a nightmare of graphic horror that while might be familiar in its themes and packed with good ideas, is slightly mishandled from the start.
Jack Zeller (Christopher Denham) is a veteran Afghanistan War photographer who suffers from PSTD, the experiences he’s had documenting the conflict leaving him scarred and vowing never to take pictures again. When his girlfriend Claire (Nadja Bobyleva), trying to urge him back to his love, impulsively buys him a vintage 1930s film camera, he reluctantly takes to the craft again, but after a freak accident at the developer leaves only a few of his rolls processed, he notices something strange in his pictures: there are dead bodies in his photographes. He quickly realizes his camera is predicting death, and so naturally sets about trying to prevent them. But when Claire shows up in one roll, he finds there is a price to pay for his heroism and takes to extreme measures in trying to save her. But how far can he go?
Directed by Aaron B. Koontz, in his feature length debut, Camera Obscura is a curious misfire, a story with great promise that plays out like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, holding vehemently to the basics, missing opportunities to make this as dark as it could. While it has some fundamentally scary, or more accurately, disturbing visuals (and they are good) – some that seem a nod to classics of the genre – they are hampered a bit by a routine execution that is too hurried to get to the gimmick and then unsure what to do once it gets there. For instance, when Jack opens his film to discover the first round of his macabre images, he is barely put off by them and seems to understand straight away what they are, stripping the movie of any real mystery or, if you’ll pardon the wording, development.
Further setting it back is its choice to follow a worn-out trend in recent movies where we see the ending – or at least its setup – at the start and flashback to the events leading back to it, a narrative device that truly only works in very specific circumstances and robs us here of any real suspense. It then attempts bits of comedy that while admittedly amusing for what they are, with Jack not so good at murdering, seem awkward for the overall tone, and the general glossing-over of Jack’s condition of suffering from the atrocities of war. That in itself reduces the film’s chance at having great impact.
Still, Koontz, who co-wrote the screenplay, has great ideas and directs well many good moments that will satisfy hardcore horror fans. This has a purposeful old school feel to it that clearly comes from Koontz’s love of the genre and to be sure, the movie often takes you back if you know where to go. Denham however, who has done good work before (many will recognize him from his role in the recent Showtime series Billions), seems miscast here, not able to carry the burden with any great conviction, which is too bad because the character has great potential. The premise also makes for a very compelling story but in a deep pool of horror films, there’s not much to separate Camera Obscura from the others. A good-looking first effort, it will be interesting to see what Koontz does next.
Movie description: Camera Obscura is a 2017 horror film about a veteran war photographer with PTSD who sees imminent deaths in his developed photos, questioning his already fragile sanity and putting the lives of those he loves in danger.
Director(s): Aaron B. Koontz
Actor(s): Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin