Camera Obscura (written by Cameron Burns and Aaron B. Koontz and directed by Koontz) isn’t quite a thinking person’s horror movie, though it very much wants to be. But it does come pretty close at times. Still, the movie is a very tense and enjoyable ride from start to finish.
The movie’s hook or, really, gimmick, is that an evil vintage camera photographs deaths before they happen, showing up when the film is developed. The camera ends up in the hands of Jack Zeller (Christopher Denham), a war photographer with PTSD. Not only does Jack learn that the camera photographs the dead, but he soon finds out that he’s in a kind of monkey’s paw situation in which he learns that he can save the people he photographs, but only if someone else is killed in their place. Quite an interesting premise, but it demands a lot, and ensures that character is going to be subsumed to the demands of the plot and the rules of the gimmick. So, as much as Camera Obscura wants to be a character study, it can be so only within certain confines.
Still, the movie is expertly paced and it does manage to be a bit of a psychological study. The very subjective point-of-view filmmaking emphasizing Jack’s loneliness and his descent into madness helps a lot in this regard. Early on, we get a very nice montage in which which Jack wanders around, alone, taking photographs. It’s all wide shots, giving us a sense of his oppressive loneliness and isolation.
This is a very visceral film from start to finish, and there is a hell of a lot of skill on display here. Cinematographer Chris Heinrich, a nearly twenty-year veteran behind the camera, is extremely good with color and its effect on mood, using it to great effect. And, goddamn, the reds (and since this is a fairly graphic horror film, there are naturally a lot of reds), are very intense. Steve Moore’s score, moody and brooding, is a perfect compliment to the visuals.
The acting is mostly solid throughout. Nadja Bobyleva is incredibly charming as the perhaps too naive Claire, Jack’s fiance. However, since he’s in nearly every scene, the movie rests on Christopher Denham’s shoulders. The brooding war photographer who’s seen too much is a character type that could easily descend into caricature, but Denham creates a character who is sad, shy, funny, disturbed and sympathetic, always displaying these traits at least two at a time. There’s a lot of emotional weight to this role, and Denham is up to the task.
I found a lot to like about Camera Obscura. Yeah, the gimmicky plot trips it up every now and then, leading to some mind-bogglingly silly coincidences, but that’s okay. We’re still left with a moody character study that’s plenty exciting. Horror fans will find a lot to like in this movie. I know I did.
Camera Obscura will arrive in limited theaters on June 9th and will be available on demand via iTunes on June 13th.