June ended up being a particularly busy month of releases, and here’s a look at three different indie films that I had the opportunity to check out over the last several weeks:
Camera Obscura: For his feature film directorial debut, co-writer/director Aaron B. Koontz concocts his own “weird episode of Goosebumps” (to borrow a phrase from the film) in Camera Obscura, which feels like a mash-up of Shutter (the original, not the remake) and Final Destination, with a bit of a slasher twist thrown in for good measure. Koontz deftly maneuvers through familiar genre tropes to create an unexpected horror treat, anchored by a strong performance from Christopher Denham (Shutter Island, The Bay).
In Camera Obscura, we meet photographer Jack Zeller (Denham), who has been struggling with PTSD after returning from shooting photos in the Middle East. His supportive fiancée, Claire (Nadja Bobyleva), decides to pick him up an antique camera in an effort to get him back into loving photography, but when Jack uses her gift to shoot some pics, the photos mysteriously develop in black and white, and feature grisly crime scenes instead of the images Jack originally shot. Realizing that the photos are indicative of future events, Jack sets out to stop the potential deaths, only to get caught up in a very personal race against time when he realizes the stakes at hand after seeing what is (or could be) awaiting him with the final doomed photo’s contents.
I don’t want to give away some of the fun elements that Koontz cooks up in Camera Obscura, but I do think he not only does an intriguing exploration of PTSD, but also delivers a story that has some familiar elements to it, yet still tows its own unique line from beginning to end. As mentioned, Denham is a solid choice to lead Camera Obscura, and he’s joined by a bunch of familiar faces, including Noah Segan (Looper, Starry Eyes), Chase Williamson (John Dies at the End, Beyond the Gates), Gretchen Lodge (Lovely Molly), and Andrew Sensenig (We Are Still Here). It’s evident from his work here that Koontz is a huge admirer of the horror genre, and I’m genuinely curious to see what he can do on his next effort.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
Aaron’s Blood: While I appreciate the fact that writer/director Tommy Stovall takes the road less traveled when it comes to his vampire-themed story of a father’s devotion to his son, Aaron’s Blood ends up succumbing to several issues that keep it from being a truly standout effort, including some technical issues and uneven performances from the film’s leads.
Aaron’s Blood follows a single dad named Aaron (James Martinez), who has a lot on his plate, including the fact that his son, Tate (Trevor Stovall), suffers from hemophilia and lands in the hospital after a bully goes too far. While hospitalized, Tate receives a mysterious blood transfusion, and that’s when the boy begins to exhibit some unusual side effects, like being cured of his life-threatening condition, getting seriously burned whenever he steps into sunlight even for the briefest of moments, and a burgeoning thirst for blood. As you may have guessed, Tate is well on his way to becoming a vampire, and it’s up to Aaron to figure out a way to stop it before it’s too late for his kid.
Stovall utilizing Arizona as the blistering backdrop to his vampiric cinematic tale is a nice touch, and Aaron’s Blood does also feature some intriguing supporting characters I’d enjoy seeing in some kind of spinoff, but as far as the film’s lead performances go, both Martinez and the younger Stovall struggle in their respective roles, never quite finding the emotional footing needed to fully demonstrate the strong parent-child bond between the two that anchors Stovall’s story. Aaron’s Blood also suffers from some technical issues that end up making the film feel flat and lifeless in several scenes, and the end product could have really benefitted from a stronger sound mix, because you can hear numerous audio drops throughout the 80-minute running time. It’s a real shame because had things gone a bit better, Aaron’s Blood had the potential to be something far more compelling than what we get now.
Movie Score: 2.5/5
The Little Hours: I’m not even sure how to summarize Jeff Baena’s off-kilter comedy The Little Hours, which features entertaining performances from a talented ensemble that includes John C. Reilly, Dave Franco, Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, Alison Brie, Fred Armisen, and Kate Micucci. They all help elevate Baena’s unusual adaptation of The Decameron beyond just being another one-joke cinematic offering, and I really appreciated that even beyond all the humor and ridiculous sex scenes, The Little Hours doesn’t shy away from addressing the sexism and classism that often kept women subjugated in the 14th century (and unfortunately, in many cases, still does today).
From the very start, it’s evident that Baena isn’t giving us another stuffy adaptation of a classic literary work, as we watch several nuns from a small convent heckle the gardener with some expletive-laden insults in The Little Hours. The nuns (Plaza, Micucci, and Brie) are all dealing with their suppressive environment in their own ways, until a young man by the name of Massetto (Franco) arrives, and, believing he’s a deaf-mute, the women use him to bring forth their own sexual desires, resulting in a mad-cap romp that unleashes all sorts of naughty escapades while under the watch of Sister Marea (Shannon) and Father Tommasso (Reilly), who also happen to be a little sweet on each other.
The Little Hours often struggles tonally, but it still manages to be an entertaining and good-natured trip back in time due to the efforts of the film’s ensemble, who give the otherwise stock characters some real personality, especially Franco, who is tasked with keeping his mouth shut throughout most of his scenes. My favorite parts of The Little Hours involve the story getting away from the convent, when we witness a beautiful fever dream of a scene involving a black magic-fueled sacrifice, and I also found the subplot involving both Shannon and O’Reilly’s characters particularly adorable as well (I honestly wish we had more of them in this). The Little Hours may not necessarily be a genre film at its core, but for those with a particular sense of humor (think You’re Highness meets Life of Brian meets Year One), Baena’s anachronistic comedy might be little slice of debaucherous heaven.
Movie Score: 3/5