Camera Obscura is the rare horror film that fails with style.
Despite feeling like an overgrown “Twilight Zone” episode that flies dangerously off the rails, Camera Obscura is the rare horror film that fails with style. Writer/director Aaron Koontz has the fixins for several different kinds of scary movies at his disposal, but never quite settles enough to create something coherent or cohesive. But what it lacks in execution, it mostly makes up for in charm.
The film follows Jack Zeller (Christopher Denham), a former war photographer with PTSD. He lives with his partner Claire (Nadja Bobyleva), a patient woman who does her best to cope with Jack’s slow recovery and unemployment. In an effort to help Jack out of his rut, she gifts him a camera, one that turns Jack’s life upside down. Now, the gist is that Jack uses this camera to take pictures, but when he gets them developed, he sees gruesome deaths that have yet to happen at the same locations. It’s a great hook, especially given that this is a man forever haunted by the horrors he’s captured with a lens since being overseas.
The problem is that Koontz can’t decide where he wants to go with that premise. Instead of following one logical through line, Jack’s journey forks down multiple weird paths. First, Jack, being the lead, attempts to play hero and prevent the deaths the camera foretells, but he’s terrible at it. In pretty short order, Jack is driven mad by what the camera shows him and begins to kill people himself. There’s a procedural aspect and the film flirts with becoming a psychological thriller, but never quite consummates. The movie hops around wildly and riffs down various tones and demeanors, with the only real constant being blood and death and trauma with casual but unexciting photog imagery.
From a writing perspective, the movie is a mess, but its real undoing is the amateurish look and feel of the production, which rests somewhere below glossy porn parody in terms of flash and style. The cast, namely the two romantic leads and Rian Johnson vet Noah Sagan as one of Jack’s friends, deliver serviceable performances that feel like minor miracles given how weak the script they’re working from is. But the film hopscotches from one tired, moody sequence to the next, feeling like a loose approximation of a horror film made by someone who heard about the general idea of horror once without doing much follow up research.
The film’s saving grace is that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously. There’s a lot of quirky, Raimi-esque levity providing a darkly comic edge to the proceedings. These moments provide comforting evidence that with more generous budgetary constraints and perhaps a sharper co-writer, Koontz could be capable of producing something resonant and thrilling. As it stands, Camera Obscura is a film that burns all the potential goodwill afforded it from an interesting set-up, but it ignites so quickly and wildly that it’s hard to look away.