Studio: Chiller Films
Director: Aaron B. Koontz
Writer: Aaron B. Koontz, Cameron Burns
Producer: Aaron B. Koontz, Amir Zbeda, Andrew van den Houten
Stars: Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin, Noah Segan, Gretchen Lodge, Andrew Sensenig, Chase Williamson, Jeremy King
A seemingly cursed camera shows a troubled photographer images of deaths yet to come, including his beloved fiancée’s.
Still struggling with the trauma of having been a press photographer in war-torn Afghanistan, Jack Zeller isn’t sure he is capable of picking up a camera again. But after his fiancée Claire surprises him with a vintage camera as an early anniversary present, Jack cautiously gets back on the horse by taking snapshots of local properties for Claire’s realty business.
When Jack later picks up his developed film rolls, the shop manager mentions a lab fire before apologizing for the photos inexplicably coming out in black and white. That’s not the strangest thing. Jack thumbs through his photographs and notices that several of them show much more than architecture.
One photo features a drowned boy lying dead beside a pool. Another shows a prone woman on the floor of her house. These bodies weren’t there when Jack took the pictures. Yet when he connects news of a local boy breaking his neck at a community park with a photo he took the day before, Jack realizes his camera is foretelling deaths yet to come.
The biggest problem of all is that one photo depicts the demise of beloved Claire. Now Jack must find a way for someone else to take his fiancée’s place in the picture, assuming his slipping sanity isn’t projecting all of this into Jack’s haunted mind.
For lack of a more flattering description, “Camera Obscura” is a perfectly competent little low-budget thriller. I mean that in as positive of a manner as possible. There isn’t anything particularly remarkable to mention regarding the movie. But it works as a “get the job done” bite of straightforward horror entertainment.
Having spent time in the industry working in various capacities, perhaps most notably as an executive producer on “Starry Eyes” (review here), Aaron B. Koontz wisely keeps things simple for his directorial debut feature. From script to cinematography to production design to acting, nothing bites off more than can be chewed by a crew balancing a slim checkbook with ingenuity and ambition.
“Camera Obscura” probably doesn’t need all the side characters stuffing its roster, although staples of the indie genre scene including Noah Segan, Chase Williamson, and David Jensen give the production a minor boost via supporting roles. Journeyman character actor Lance E. Nichols also shows up to confirm that the film was shot in Louisiana, as Nichols rarely appears in productions shot outside the state.
Capably leading the way is Christopher Denham as a mostly milquetoast man nevertheless affable enough to keep the “Twilight Zone”-style story compelling in between splashes of gore and psychological tension. Nadja Bobyleva as Claire is most noticeable for creating an auditory distraction by neither fully embracing nor completely divorcing herself of her Russian accent. Though that is more a fault of the screenplay for developing characters like hers only perfunctorily and leaving it at that.
The script’s greatest sin is mandating a significant disbelief suspension specifically with regard to Jack’s photos and how the subsequent mystery unfolds. You’re regularly required to quiet your own questions about why Jack takes certain actions instead of others. You’ll also marvel at the convenience of how clues are revealed piecemeal despite Jack literally having all of the evidence in the palm of his hand.
A final bump in the road arrives with an ending that comes together too quickly without satisfactorily tying up the fiction’s loose ends. “Camera Obscura” isn’t cerebral enough to get away cleanly with its “what do you think was really happening?” conclusion, yet it tries for this light touch of interpretive ambiguity anyway.
Still, invest in the atmosphere and stick with the story and “Camera Obscura” rewards with a moodily macabre chiller, albeit a quietly self-contained one. A repeat viewing may not be on the agenda, but for a one-and-done Friday night fright film, “Camera Obscura” meets the mark with a thumbs up.
Review Score: 65