Before you ask, yes, Aaron B. Koontz’s Camera Obscura has distinct similarities to the forty-sixth episode of The Twilight Zone, “A Most Unusual Camera.” Both follow characters who stumble upon mysterious cameras whose photos predict the future. In the Twilight Zone episode, it produces photos set five minutes in the future, something swiftly taken advantage of by a trio of thieves to predict horse race winners. But in Camera Obscura, the pictures don’t always predict the future. But the limited few that do have their predictions in common: the imminent death of a random bystander. The catch: the futures predicted by the photos aren’t set in stone. So if, say, the loving girlfriend of a returned war photographer suffering extreme PTSD shows up stabbed to death in a bathtub, she doesn’t have to die. But somebody does. And they have to die in the exact same way depicted in the photos or it doesn’t count. But here’s the final twist: just because the girlfriend’s death is delayed once doesn’t mean that she won’t keep reappearing in the other photos, resulting in a non-stop cycle of preventative murder until all the photos are “altered.” It’s a pity that Jack Zeller (Christopher Denham) shot eight full rolls of film before he knew the powers of the camera.
As a horror film, Camera Obscura disappoints. The film curiously lacks any sense of tension. I blame this largely on Koontz’s decision to begin the film in medias res with Jack luring a pizza delivery man into a back alley so he can murder him. This alleviates the film of all suspense as to the depths Jack will fall to save his girlfriend Claire (Nadja Bobyleva). We know he will inevitably be driven to murder, so we don’t feel anything during the scenes when he agonizes over the murderous ramifications of his new camera. We know what will happen to his character, something that ruins horror films 99% percent of the time. (That 1% is, of course, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now .)
But there’s more than just a bit of Grand Guignol in the film. And when it embraces these shallow exploitative roots, the film takes flight. Koontz has a decent eye for cinematic gore—though he doesn’t raise it to the level of high art like the great Italian giallo filmmakers, he knows how to give violence weight and heft. Jack’s murders are all visceral and stomach-churning. The best sequence in the film comes when Jack sneaks into the home of a hardware store owner. Turns out the owner is a tough sumbitch who refuses to go down, even when he gets stabbed in the chest with a giant steak knife. And as the fight goes on, it becomes uncomfortably comical.
Make no mistake: Camera Obscura isn’t just a schlocky stag reel of gore effects with an oddly compelling premise. Koontz never loses sight of Jack as a victim. Jack knows that he’s mentally unwell thanks to his PTSD, and he spends the entire film questioning whether the camera is truly magical or if he’s just losing his mind. He has several ghastly hallucinations, such as his girlfriend shredding him to bloody pieces when they make love or, in an unfortunate ripoff of Tone Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), when he starts yanking his teeth out one morning while staring at himself in the bathroom mirror. We get the sense that every time he murders someone, he desperately hopes that it’s just another hallucination and he’ll wake up. But no such luck. This is a splatter movie. And splatter movies seldom, if ever, have happy endings.