Tackling the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) using elements of supernatural storytelling is an intriguing idea, and director Aaron B. Koontz’s feature-length debut Camera Obscura (USA, 2017) offers some interesting angles on that approach. The film is also, however, bogged down by psychological horror tropes and a lead character with whom it is difficult to sympathize.
Jack Zeller — played by prolific genre actor Christopher Denham, who also wrote and directed the shockers Home Movie (2008) and Preservation (2014) — is a veteran war photographer who has had great trouble readjusting to life back home. His fiancee Claire (Nadja Bobyleva) does her best to try to get him to feel normal, including buying him a vintage camera and getting him a photography gig at her real estate office. The camera is far from a normal one, with a dark history behind it, and with an ability to take photos of future deaths. As Jack becomes deeply involved with the terrors that his camera reveals, his tenuous grip on reality becomes blurred, putting those closest to him, not to mention total strangers, in grave danger.
Koontz co-wrote the screenplay with Cameron Burns; the plot becomes muddled and somewhat difficult to follow at times as Jack’s reality becomes increasingly distorted and his grip on sanity is fractured. When films rely too heavily on dream sequences and hallucinations, the initial emotional investment in some scenes can be reversed immediately, and cheapened, by “it was all in the character’s head” reveals. That happens at times in Camera Obscura, including one particularly gripping initial moment that involves Jack being helpless while Claire is in danger in the next room. Thankfully the film doesn’t rely solely on that device; it offers its share of thrilling and eerie moments in reality and Jack’s disturbed mind.
The cast is engaging throughout. Denham gives a standout turn as Jack, embodying him with a raw nervous energy and balancing him with a frightened, scarred side and a determined, protective side. The only problem with the character of Jack is that Koontz and Burns have written him as a rather unsympathetic protagonist. He doesn’t seem to reward Claire’s trust in him, and he spends more time apologizing to her than showing close affection. Denham gives the role his all, though, offering reason enough to give Camera Obscura a try.
Koontz and Burns have done a nice job with developing Claire’s character. She is truly a source of strength for Jack, doing her best to help him readjust to everyday life. When things start going sour, she has the strength and wisdom to speak her mind. Bobyleva gives a wonderful performance here, lighting up the screen in romantic scenes and providing believable gravitas when the script calls for it.
Some occasional dark comedy comes into play, particularly in a segment involving Jack’s interaction with a hardware store owner. The acting and action during this sequence is decidedly different than the rest of the film’s tone and, though the comedy feels awkward at first, it gets better as it goes along. Koontz and Burns wisely tried to liven up the gloom a little and, for the most part, this segment works.
Camera Obscura goes for a sense of the macabre and a growing sense of dread rather than jump scares or graphic shocks — though the red stuff does run rather freely at times. Much of the horror comes from Jack’s efforts to protect Claire from what he feels is certain doom, and the lengths to which he will go to protect her. Though it has a few minor flaws, the film offers a creepy character study. Koontz’s direction and eye for visuals are both solid, and he certainly seems to be a talent worth watching.