In photography, camera obscura is an optical trick that occurs when images are projected through small holes in walls, boxes or other screens. The photographic illusion is more sinister in Aaron B. Koontz’s slow-burning horror film, but it proves less compelling than its centuries-old namesake. Though born of an inventive idea, “Camera Obscura” comes out underdeveloped.
“The nightmare is always the same,” Jack (Christopher Denham) says to his therapist in the film’s quiet opening minutes. What he tells her concerns an insect, a trail of blood and other signifiers that all is not well in his subconscious, where “death always wins” and the ghosts of his past refuse to stay there. A veteran war photographer, he’s so disturbed by memories of what he captured with his camera during his deployment that he’s sworn off his former hobby/profession altogether. He now finds himself wandering through life as a civvie in a directionless rut.
The strangeness begins as soon as his girlfriend Claire (Nadja Bobyleva), bless her heart, gifts him an antique camera she bought at an auction in an attempt to put some pep back in his step. This being a spooky, mystical device, a fire breaks out and all of jack’s photos come out black-and-white when he brings his first few rolls of films in to be developed. More troubling still, some of them feature dead bodies that weren’t there when Jack snapped the pictures in question — including Claire’s.
What follows is a “Final Destination”–type attempt to avoid the inevitable, which in this case is the death of our wayward hero’s special lady friend. As for why he doesn’t just ditch the evil camera and make good on his earlier promise to never pick one up again, horror-movie logic dictates that his only way out of this hole is to keep digging (read: killing people so that they take Claire’s place in this fatalistic ritual).
Like a lot of horror movies, “Camera Obscura” hinges much of its vague surreality on its protagonist’s PTSD. Jack’s time Over There changed him, man, and you wouldn’t understand because you weren’t there, man, and so those around him are wary of his behavior from the outset: Denham brings an “it’s always the quiet ones” creepiness to Jack, who’s so clearly out of his depth that watching him descend into paranoia is more pitiable than scary.
“Camera Obscura” is better in detail than it is in broad strokes, with off-kilter interactions between Jack and the randos he encounters doing more to advance the unsettling mood than the bloody, predictable set pieces. He becomes an unreliable protagonist as “Camera Obscura” begins matching his unhinged state of mind; his violent delusions feel like an attempt to channel “American Psycho.” But nothing that’s made its way onscreen will unnerve you the way Jack’s photos unnerve him.