This edgy, unsettling ‘curse’ movie has a good opening hook … amiable slacker Walt (Noah Segan) turns up at an abandoned industrial facility to deliver a pizza and is jumped a guy in a hoodie who has lured him here for summary execution. With the gun to his head, Walt recognises the would-be murderer as Jack Zeller (Christopher Denham), an old friend – who is almost more appalled to discover that his thirty-year-old buddy is working such a dud job than he is determined to carry out a necessary, but random murder. Then, flashbacks show how these guys got to this bad place.
Jack, a war photographer suffering from PTSD, has sworn off shutterbug activities, but his realtor girlfriend Claire (Nadja Bobyleva), at the end of her patience with his lack of work, gives him a restored 1930s camera as a gift and gets him a low-pressure gig photographing properties her firm represents. However, when the developed film comes back, each batch of shots has an extra photograph showing a corpse Jack didn’t notice when taking them … and analysis of the camera, which might have a very sinister history connected with a local serial killer, suggests that it shouldn’t work at all. The first anomaly shot is of a dead kid in a playground, and a report comes in that just such an accident has taken place … tipping Jack off to the fact that the supernatural images are prophetic, which prompts him to take action and intervene to save the next victims, only to find that interfering with the long chain of fate can only shift someone out of the crosshairs of death if someone else is pushed in, and that there seems to be some queue of people awaiting their less-elaborate-than-Final Destination fates. Naturally, the line of deaths gets closer to home, and various interested parties start to wonder if Jack is a vigilante hero or some kind of serial murderer, while he tries to fathom the rules of this particular cycle of doom.
Like Ring, Sinister and several other millennial horror franchises, this looks to now-outmoded recording technology – it’s a miracle the protagonist can find somewhere to get his photos developed – and weaves an elaborate puzzle around the precise mechanics of the pay-it-forward curse. Director Aaron B. Koontz – who also co-wrote with Cameron Burns – is expanding his short film Aperture, and takes an elliptical approach to storytelling that some might find too disorienting. It takes a while for the film to demonstrate exactly what’s happening with the magic photos, while its hero has to take more and more extreme actions as his mind collapses and it becomes clear that the real curse is on him rather than the incidental victims. Not everything is explained, which means the movie has some spaces left for scariness that many modern horror movies fill in – Denham does sterling work as a hero who’s difficult to get close to, and takes us on an uncomfortable journey. The story wouldn’t work if he were less flawed. One reason we stick with him is that Claire and Walt do too, and Bobyleva and Segan sell their characters’ loyalty to the guy Jack used to be and their hope that he’ll get back on track.
It has a queasy, scruffy look, with a lot of physical violence and an air of persistent menace that’s as much to do with fractured minds as the supernatural. Camera Obscura manages a balancing act between outright spookery and the possibility that this is all just a crackup fantasy, but the story would be affecting either way.