A veteran war photographer with PTSD sees imminent deaths in his developed photos, questioning his already fragile sanity and putting the lives of those he loves in danger.
June 9th, 2017
Aaron B. Koontz
Aaron B. Koontz
It means that something is hard to follow or overly-complex.
Now. I would venture a thought that the new indie-horror flick Camera Obscura almost reaches that description.
It’s not that I couldn’t comprehend what was happening in the story, but it did require a little squinting, head-scratching and some question-asking to my fellow audience member (it was just me and my husband). It just wasn’t terribly clear.
Camera Obscura is an intriguing idea, but I don’t think it was very well executed.
Jack Zeller (Christopher Denham – most known for Argo and Shutter Island) is an armed-services veteran. He was a war photographer while overseas and now battles PTSD and is in continual therapy to help manage the illness. His fiance Claire (Nadja Bobyleva) is as supportive as she can be, but his inability to find work is starting to put a strain on their relationship. He’s also lost his drive to continue his lifelong love of photography. Claire buys him an antique camera in an attempt to get him back on the horse. He starts taking real estate property photos for Claire’s boss (she’s in real estate) and that’s when things begin to unravel. The old camera works fine, but when the film is developed, what should be color photos are all in black and white. In addition, some of the photos become a sort of precursor/warning of impending deaths – the photos showing grotesque scenes of accidents and bloody murders. When something familiar shows up in one of the photo batches, Jack must race against time to change these photographic premonitions – but he has to dig into the darkest parts of himself to achieve this.
While the film generally looks good in all of the technical categories, it falls far short in the pacing, characterization and overall audience engagement.
Denham just isn’t interesting in the lead role. It seems a shortcoming on his part, as the writer has given him so much rich and wonderful history to play with – a war veteran with PTSD – an actor couldn’t ask for a better foundation to build his character! It’s not that he’s a bad actor per se, but even with a tough character history – I never once felt any sympathy for Jack.
On that same note, there was zero chemistry between Denham and is on-screen wife – Bobyleva. I didn’t buy their love or their relationship. It never popped. That along with a not-terribly inspired performance from either of them – leaves a big gaping hole of “meh”.
Some of the supporting actors actually take center stage – almost wiping the floor with the two leads whenever these supporting characters are on-screen. As Detective Dawson, Orange is the New Black’s Catherine Curtin plays a stereotypical harsh cop, but it’s a fun part. Also in smaller roles are Beyond the Gate’s Chase Willamson as Dawson’s young partner and Andrew Sensenig (of We Are Still Here) as serial killer Charlie Hibbert.
On the topic of Charlie Hibbert – other than an out-of-nowhere important addition to the film’s climax, this character felt mostly unnecessary. Sure, Jack finds out some things based on his investigation of Hibbert and how it applies to his own situation, but his presence felt almost tacked-on. Regardless of the script’s shortcomings, Sensenig delivers his usual strong performance.
But the big sins of Camera Obscura come from the lack of firm description in the visuals. Once Jack begins seeing these foreshadows of death, he revisits the places where he originally captured the shots. The thing is (and this is where I kept asking questions) that when he first innocently takes photos, not enough is made of the particular locations. They’re not specific enough for the audience to then make an “oh, that was the place where…” when he goes back to see if he can stop the pending death. So all of these folks he encounters (and in some cases saves) are personality-less, blank people. There’s no strong prior connection to either these people, or more importantly to the locations. So it feels like the audience is always playing catch-up.
And with the odd intro of the serial killer – it becomes more and more difficult to digest. There’s that word again – convoluted.
I wouldn’t say that I’m the sharpest tack on the board, but I’m certainly capable of following a film. I generally don’t need to be spoon-fed either, so I won’t take the blame on this one. The film’s just messy and unclear.
With nothing else to really focus on (no interesting lead characters), and since the film never truly grabs you, you’ll simply lose some of your motivation to continue to play the aforementioned game of “catch-up”.
I was also not a fan of the score by Steve Moore (Cub and Don’t Knock Twice). It’s a clear homage to John Carpenter, but it’s often distracting – overpowering the dialogue and the action on-screen.
A few other good things – there’s a lengthy fight sequence later in the film, with some very impressive choreography. And Jack’s fight-scene partner (Jeremy King) delivers a hysterical turn as a local hardware store owner named Tad. On that same note, there are several quite funny moments and dialogue exchanges throughout the film; worthy of some praise.
Also, the gore effects are a lot of fun, and once things get going – quite frequent.
There’s not much in the way of good “boo” moments – something you’ll expect from most supernatural films of this ilk. But with nothing invested in the characters – you’re never caring if they’re in some sort of danger anyway.
With a very interesting idea rife with potential (a deeper investigation into PTSD would have been fascinating) which never comes to full fruition, ho-hum performances (except for some of the supporting cast) and a chemistry-less lead couple, there’s not much to recommend here.
Camera Obscura is scheduled for theatrical release through Chiller Films on June 9th, 2017, and then on VOD on June 13th, 2017.