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‘Awakening the Zodiac’ and ‘Camera Obscura’ Reviews: Past Murders, Present Pain

By  · Published on June 9th, 2017

Serial killers from the past return to haunt the present.

Two new movies opening in limited release today share a theme beyond just their categorization as horror/thrillers. Both are set in the present day but pull on bloody threads left dangling by killers from the past in the form of photographic equipment. They differ when it comes to tone and quality though.


It’s 1968, and a young couple making out in their parked car is interrupted by a police officer. He advises them to move on and leaves, but as they go to comply a second car approaches. A man in a hood exits and shoots both of them to death. A quick jump to the present introduces Mick (Shane West) and Zoe (Leslie Bibb), a couple just getting by financially who repeatedly clash over Mick’s surefire, get rich quick plans that always involve buying the contents of storage lockers sight unseen. His latest haul is mostly junk, but hidden among it all are reels of old home videos including some that appear to show the Zodiac killer committing his heinous crimes.

Along with their friend Harvey (Matt Craven), they begin to suspect that the still-at-large Zodiac may be living among them. The trio starts an investigation hoping they can identify the man, turn him over to the authorities, and collect a fat reward, but as should be expected things don’t quite go according to plan.

Awakening the Zodiac spends two-thirds of its running time as a solidly-crafted thriller with a strong set of characters before shooting itself in the foot in the third act. Those later issues don’t completely derail the film, but they lessen what until that point had been a surprisingly effective indie chiller.

The cast is strong throughout as is the production design, but it’s the script that holds things together beautifully for most of the film. It immediately affords Bibb with a surprisingly smart and rational character typically uncommon in films like these. Zoe is aware, cautious, and even acts quickly when the more careless and gung-ho guys seem to be leading them towards trouble. She’s well-written enough to be both a supportive wife and an intelligent person in her own right — this shouldn’t be a rare thing in genre films, but it is. It’s great to see, and that’s part of what makes her third act behavior so disappointing. It’s almost as if a switch is flipped, and suddenly she’s a typical moron.

The film’s other strength, one that stays consistent throughout, is its field of suspects. The film offers up plenty of appropriately aged and somewhat suspicious supporting characters with the result being that you’re never quite sure who among them is the killer. A word of advice though — avoid the IMDB cast list before watching the film if you want to ensure that guessing game.

Director/co-writer Jonathan Wright and cinematographer Boris Mojsovski make great use of light and shadow as the trio fumble through basements, attics, and dusty pawn shops. Suspense sequences are equally well-designed with blurry background threats and unsettling sounds working to unnerve characters and viewers alike.

Increased stupidity at the end aside, Awakening the Zodiac is more often than not a tight and effective little thriller offering a strong script, solid performances, and some creepy beats.

We first meet Jack (Christopher Denham) as he’s preparing to murder a pizza delivery boy, but when the boy turns out to be his friend Walt (Noah Segan) his plan is thrown for a loop. If you’re wondering how this came to be you’ll be happy to know we immediately jump back eleven days to find out.

Jack is suffering from PTSD after serving as a war photographer in the Middle East, and his fiance Claire (Nadja Bobyleva)is trying to help him move forward. She gives him an antique camera she bought at an auction in the hopes he’ll find some motivation, but when he starts snapping some pictures he finds something else instead. The film can only be developed in black and white, and worse, one photo from each roll shows a dead body. He soon discovers that the pictures are glimpses of the future as two of them come true. An effort to save an impending victim sees that person moved forward to a new fate, and when Claire appears in one of the photos Jack realizes immediately what he has to do.

He starts killing other people and arranging them in Claire’s place secure in the belief that once he’s done so a set number of times she’ll be free. His intentions are flawed at best.

There’s a lot going on in director/co-writer Aaron B. Koontz‘s Camera Obscura, and it’s quickly revealed to be far more than the film can handle. The Twilight Zone-like camera gimmick is enough to hang a fun genre film on, but the inclusion of PTSD — especially as presented here in the form of massive hallucinations and a severe desensitization to death — makes things a bit more troubling. On top of all that Koontz’s film aims to be a black comedy of sorts complete with physical comedy bits and Jack’s “woe is me” fumblings as a killer.

The pieces just don’t come together.

Jack is far from a sympathetic protagonist too. His murder victims range from a local creep whose death we’re meant to support to innocent strangers and friends alike. Again, it’s a comedy and not meant to be taken seriously, but even our support for Jack’s efforts to save Claire grows dimmer with each passing second. It’s not entirely clear why he’s convinced that saving her X-number of times will save her permanently, but we also can’t get behind even his non-murderous actions.

The photos are real, but he makes little to no effort to share them or his concerns with anyone outside of a homeless bum. He loves Claire but can’t confide? The argument is he’s worried that the pics are just another symptom of his PTSD, but again, they’re confirmed as real and not hallucinations… so why not tell someone? It feels as if his illness is being used as a substitute for madness, and it’s a fine line that gets crushed into the ground here as he acts like a moron. Extended fights with a pair of victims — think John Carpenter’s They Live but with “fun” replacing its charm — are played for laughs, and it’s unclear how much of this should be attributed to his PTSD.

Complicating matters further is the camera’s history and what Jack discovers about its past owner. His investigation reveals a past serial killer with a grip on the present, but it’s presented in a somewhat convoluted way when combined with the camera’s ability, Jack’s own culpability, and the meaning behind it all.

Camera Obscura has a simple gimmick at its core that gets obscured minute by minute with tonal inconsistencies, overly dense plot turns, and a highly unlikable lead character. We should feel for him and his plight, but we absolutely don’t. Koontz remains a talent to watch as the film itself looks and moves well, but hopefully he’ll start with a stronger script next time.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.