Jack (Christopher Denham) is a shell-shocked combat photographer struggling to readjust to life in suburban America. His fiancée, Claire (Nadja Bobyleva), tries to help by buying him an old camera and getting him a gig taking snapshots of real estate properties. Sounds like easy money, except the local photo lab processes only four of his 10 rolls before its equipment mysteriously breaks down. And though Jack shot on color stock, his photos inexplicably print in black and white, a phenomena that in Camera Obscura manages to be less eerie than the sight of a photo lab that’s still in business.
The film’s hook is that many of Jack’s photos somehow depict deaths, as a result of accidents and crimes, that will happen in the imminent future. When Claire appears in a photo of a mugging gone wrong at a parking garage, Jack engineers a different victim in her place, and the photo magically changes to show the new target. But then Claire reappears in another photo, inspiring Jack to invent increasingly baroque schemes to save his fiancée by placing a new victim in the location that each photo shows. There’s apparently a finite number of cursed prints, and if he can exhaust them, then he can save Claire—or become an Oedipus rushing into his fate as he tries to outrun it.
Maybe a Sophocles reference is too generous. “Sounds like you’re living in a, you know, weird episode of Goosebumps,” Jack’s drinking buddy, Walt (Noah Segan), tells him—though certainly not an episode in which anyone remarks about the sudden and unusually high accidental death rate that grips the film’s small-town setting. But that reference to Goosebumps isn’t quite right either. Where R.L. Stine might have embraced the gonzo camp inherent in such a monstrous gizmo as a camera that photographs future deaths, director Aaron B. Koontz shies away, half-heartedly flirting with also making a psychological study about coping with post-traumatic stress.
If he’d stuck to that, he might have made a compelling film. Jack is in a PTSD-afflicted photojournalist’s worst nightmare, as his camera continues to capture carnage even when there’s no carnage to capture. He can no longer find anything in his main mode of expression but violence, and it pushes him to join a war of sorts—not against foreign fighters, but against the foot soldiers of fate, even though it leads him to serial murder. If Jack is mentally unstable, he’s externalizing an internal struggle for control, putting the damsel in his life in distress so he can rescue her with derring-do. Doing so allows him to avoid a more painful struggle: the work of saving himself.
Sadly, Denham keeps the tone of the film cool and untroubled where it should be anxious. And Koontz has a bad habit of dropping the psychological inquiries to go through the genre motions in the dullest way possible. Despite his blackouts and hallucinations, Jack might also just own a demonic SLR, as suggested by his ability to predict unpredictable deaths and alter the content of photographic prints, which means he’s merely learning a labored lesson in not acquiring antique machines with convoluted backstories (involving Nazis and a serial killer). Camera Obscura doesn’t really make you care either way.