2014’s Starry Eyes was an ambitiously flawed genre exercise in low-budget shocks that catapulted those involved into the hearts and minds of horror fans. Aaron B. Koontz, a producer on that film, steps out of its shadow to take centre-stage with his debut feature as director and co-writer, Camera Obscura, the eighth film (at the time of writing) on IMDb by that name.
By all accounts, the lessons he learned on Starry Eyes are present and accounted for in the movie’s loose, low-budget aesthetic, its quick cuts to acts of violence and its sombre, dark cinematography. Here, L.A. looks like a nightmare realm instead of the sunny La La Land so often propagated by more mainstream movies.
Unfortunately, many of Starry Eyes‘ problems also exist in Camera Obscura, including how it builds to a damp squib of an ending after losing most of its momentum along the way. A fine cold open (nothing new, a good way of describing the flick in general) introduces us to antihero Jack (Christopher Denham, most recognisable to horror fans from TV’s The Following.)
A war photographer with a wicked case of PTSD, Jack is busy acclimatizing to his old life via regular visits to his therapist and some quality time with his weirdly mean partner Claire (Nadja Bobyleva, Bridge Of Spies.) After Jack is gifted a vintage camera, the resulting photographs predict upcoming deaths. Soon he’s racing against the clock to save people left and right. Or kill them.
Camera Obscura is a bit of a mess. It’s difficult to escape the idea that this is just a Goosebumps story (“Say Cheese And Die”, if you’re wondering) for adults. And, as per that description, it’s a lot less fun than the kids’ version. Remarkably earnest in spite of its ludicrous premise, the flick constantly keeps the audience at arm’s length, asking us to believe in bad decision after bad decision while Jack remains the only likeable character.
At one point, someone even points out to him that it “sounds like you’re living in a weird episode of Goosebumps“, suggesting we should…laugh at Jack’s predicament? Is it supposed to be funny that people are dying all around him? And yet, everything he does, whether it’s racing to save someone or smashing another person’s brains in, is played with dead-eyed seriousness.
There are times when the movie treads dangerously close to farce, particularly after a misjudged run-in at a hardware store (played for laughs) that results in a bloody brawl, after which Jack’s phone rings and he deadpans “it’s my psychiatrist.” But he’s supposedly suffering from symptoms of PTSD, including hallucinations and losing track of time. Is Jack seriously struggling or not?
Aside from being tonally all over the place (and not in a fun way), Camera Obscura has no idea what to do with its premise once Koontz and co-writer Cameron Burns (also making his feature debut) have established it. There isn’t really anywhere to go once the bodies start to hit the floor, and the murders are nasty rather than funny.
Is it even supposed to be funny? I’m really not sure. Jack’s predicament isn’t played for laughs enough for the jokes to really register. If they even are jokes. Claire is also incredibly hard on him given how his behaviour isn’t that bad, even when he’s mindlessly killing people. How are we supposed to root for him and/or hate him if the movie can’t decide either way?
The performances are weak across the board, with most of the actors delivering their lines as though they’re hearing them for the first time. The sole bright spot, aside from Denham as the lead, is the always-welcome Chase Williamson in a bit part as a kindly police officer. He isn’t given nearly enough to do, but his popping up enlivens the film for a brief moment.
The score, by composer Steve Moore (who also whipped up take-notice music for The Guest, Cub and The Mind’s Eye), works hard to establish a spooky mood but it’s so similar to Disasterpeace’s work on It Follows, one can’t help comparing the complete absence of any tension here to that movie’s inescapably creepy atmosphere.
There are enjoyable moments scattered throughout, from Jack’s well-conceived nightmares to a crunchy body horror sequence. But, for the most part, Camera Obscura falls kind of flat. There are no scares, no tension, and the idea of an otherwise good person driven to murder has been done better as recently as earlier this year (in Prevenge), while haunted equipment is always good for a scare in horror, even in something like Goosebumps, so it’s frustrating to see it so completely mishandled. Disappointingly dull.
Catch Camera Obscura in theaters from
June 9, 2017 and on VOD / Digital HD from June 13, 2017
WICKED RATING: 5/10
Director(s): Aaron B. Koontz
Writer(s): Aaron B. Koontz, Cameron Burns
Stars: Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin, Chase Williamson
Release: June 9th, 2017 (theaters), June 13th, 2017 (VOD / Digital HD)
Studio/ Production Co: Chiller Films
Length: 95 minutes
Sub-Genre: Haunted objects