Truth is in the lens of the beholder — or is it? — in “Camera Obscura,” director-co-scenarist Aaron B. Koontz’s promising if imperfect debut feature. This psychological thriller-cum-horror film revolves around a photographer who discovers pictures taken with an antique camera seem to reveal deaths that haven’t occurred yet. Then again this may well be delusion on the part of the PTSD-afflicted hero, as he comes to believe he can prevent these tragedies only by claiming the lives of “substitute” victims himself.
Unreliable-narrator storytelling is a tricky thing to pull off in film. “Camera” scores more points for an intriguing premise than for its execution, which grows more muddled conceptually as the horror elements grow more prominent. Still, this is an accomplished effort that holds full attention while you’re watching it, even if it leaves a few too many questions dangling at the end. Opening in theaters this Friday, the movie launches on VOD and Digital HD next week.
After a brief opening sequence teasing a moment of desperation at an isolated warehouse one night, Koontz and Cameron Burns’ script backtracks 11 days to happier times for Jack Zeller (Christopher Denham). Well, not all that happy: A year after he’s returned from a six-month stint embedded in a war zone, the professional shutterbug is still shaky and unemployed, having vowed he’ll “never pick up another camera” after witnessing too many horrors on the job. On the plus side, he’s duly seeing a therapist (Carol Sutton) and has a supportive live-in spouse in realtor fiancee Claire (Nadja Bobyleva).
Nonetheless, she’s getting a little impatient with his inactivity, as finances are tight. Ergo she impulsively acquires an 80-year-old camera at an auction, hoping its novelty might prod Jack out of his non-income-producing torpor. It does, briefly. But once he’s had a first batch of rolls developed, he finds they’re not only inexplicably black and white but contain images of things he didn’t see—surely he would have noticed a corpse on a lawn or playground if it’d been there when he took the shot.
Disturbingly, it begins to dawn that these photos depict deaths (accidental or otherwise) that are about to happen. A subsequent holdup in a parking garage ends up taking a life other than the one that had been shown, convincing Jack he can prevent these disasters only by finding someone else (hopefully someone “bad”) to suffer their brunt. And as each developed film roll shows none other than his beloved Claire biting the dust, it’s soon open-casting season for unlucky strangers to take her place in various gruesome tableaux.
The eventual pileup of bodies and Jack’s proximity to them attracts unwelcome attention from police detectives (Catherine Curtin, Chase Williamson). Meanwhile, he begins fearing the camera may have once belonged to a local serial killer (Andrew Sensening). His anxiety level is ratcheted up yea further by apparent blackouts, not to mention hallucinations, dreams and/or premonitions, all of which make it difficult for him to maintain any firm grasp on reality.
“Camera Obscura” is best in its first half, when Koontz’s assured direction and the strong lead performances create an insinuating atmosphere of suspense that may or may not be supernatural in origin. The later going remains engaging, but as it moves from an emphasis on psychological terror to bloody physical action (most notably in a sequence involving Jeremy King as a most unfortunate hardware store owner), some of the initial intrigue is lost.
The key matter here should be how much Jack’s damaged psyche is warping (or flat-out creating) what he perceives. Yet despite some dislocative editing devices and such, the film seems more haphazard than ingenious in working out that mystery, all the way through a fadeout that simply muddies the waters further. In the end, “Camera” is more attentive to thriller tropes than to exploring slippery sanity, when the latter path would provide more deeply disturbing material.
Nonetheless, “Camera” is definitely a cut above in genre terms, with room for some nicely drawn character writing and acting, particularly in the support figures played by Curtin and Noah Segan (as Jack’s somewhat pathetic longtime pal Walt). There’s a confident rigor to the assembly, most notably in the widescreen lensing by Chris Heinrich. Steve Moore’s effective score follows current fashion by tipping a hat at times to 1970s and ’80s horror soundtrack flavors, without sacrificing suspense for in-joke kitsch. Though its setting is vaguely noted in dialogue as “the Midwest,” the film was shot in Louisiana.