If you need a “name,” even a little-known one, to get your D-movie financed, filmed and released, you want want who’s going to give you fair value.
You want a leading man with a sense of urgency, a dynamism that captures the shock and awe of the supernatural events going on around him. You want an actor who doesn’t look downcast for being cast.
That’s the overwhelming impression Christopher Denham gives in “Camera Obscura,” a thriller which sees its shellshocked war-photographer “hero” stunned by the realization that this pieced-together vintage camera “photographs the future,” then mindlessly accepting its prophecies, which he is heedlessly willing to kill to keep from coming true.
The plot is a spin on the sci-fi/fantasy trope “gadget that sees the future” (See “Time Lapse.” Actually, don’t.).
Denham (“Argo,” TV’s “Billions”) is Jack, a combat photojournalist who saw one too many dying kids and is determined to use what he’s seen as an excuse to never pick up a camera again.
“Life is just a game,” he philosophizes. “Death always wins.”
His shrink (Carol Sutton) may hear him out. But his fiance She (Nadja Bobleva) wants to end this funk in a flash. She gets him a vintage German 35mm camera that a collector has pieced together from broken bits of other cameras. And as Jack bores the last photo lab in town about how “exciting it is be shooting again,” he can’t help but notice — as do the photo techs — that weird, black and white crime scene photos are what the camera is producing.
And they’re of murders, violent deaths, that haven’t happened yet!
All of a sudden, Jack is blacking out, losing track of what he’s done and what he’s photographed, and in the film’s best (only good) line, he complains he’s “living in an episode of ‘Goosebumps.'”
Jack quickly wonders if he can he intervene, change the course of the future. And when he starts seeing dead shots of Claire, that curiosity becomes a mania and takes on urgency.
Or it would, if Denham gave us any hint of either of those emotions. Denham never gets past “tentative,” never commits to headlong panic. Jack’s descent into a personal hell never feels like more than an actor dipping his toes in tepid water.
The film is framed in a flashback, Jack at his wit’s end, robbing a pizza delivery guy who turns out to be an old friend. That doesn’t really work.
What does pay off is the odd moment of dark comedy — Jack asking the wrongest of the WRONG questions of a hardware store clerk (he’s seeking knock-out drugs, and doesn’t know those are peddled by the neighborhood pharmacist). The cops who keep seeing his connections to various crimes are incredulous, save for the detective in charge (Catherine Curtin). That alone is good for a laugh.
There’s little backstory about the source of Jack’s shellshock, little chemistry with Bobyleva, little here that we haven’t seen in assorted TV and movie horror tales with that “know the future” sci-fi twist.
All of which might matter less if Denham had studied the works of Nicolas Cage, Rutger Hauer, Natasha Henstridge or the late Powers Boothe — players who knew you have to bring that A-game every day, even when you’re earning D-movie money.
“MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence
Running time: 1:35