Camgirl horror film Cam is one of a few films from Blumhouse Productions playing at Fantasia 2018 and it joins the company’s stable of increasingly adventurous, clever and thoughtful genre films. From the jump, the film catches the eye with contemporary genre cinema’s tool du jour, that striking pink, purple, and blue neon some call “bisexual lighting,” illuminating an increasingly harrowing cold open. Alice, screen name Lola (Madeline Brewer), sits on the floor of her bright pink room in front of a webcam mounted on a giant monitor displaying her own feed on FreeGirlsLive. Alice watches her camgirl rank rise from the 60s towards the 50s as tips pour in from horny viewers with screen names like DumptyHumper who pay for Alice to spank herself, bounce around the room, eat a steak with her bare hands; whatever she has offered to do on camera. A tip goal is met, the sex toys come out and the room is left to vote on their favorite. An anonymous user swoops in to demand Alice use a knife, increasing his tips every second and stoking the apparent bloodlust of the other viewers, who respond with a parade of violent, grotesque emoji. As Alice’s eyes flit from the chat to her climbing rank and back to her own feed with breakneck speed, the tension ratchets as high as it can possibly go until it is released with a shock and a sigh of relief.
In just its opening, Cam, directed by Daniel Goldhaber from a script by Isa Mazzei, lays bare so many of its ideas about identity, image, fame and the control of all three well before the film’s supernatural conceit makes itself known. Alice soon finds herself locked out of her account, while an imposter, an exact doppelgänger, has taken over her feed with no explanation, and is breaking some of Alice’s self-imposed rules. Alice doesn’t fake her orgasms and she definitely doesn’t tell her viewers she loves them, lest they get any ideas. But “I love you guys” is every other word out of her copy’s mouth and viewership is higher than ever. For all the trouble caused by stalkers and possessive viewers, which still account for some of the film’s most anxiety-inducing scenes, Alice is much more concerned with this supernatural identity theft. Likewise, Mazzei and Goldhaber treat those men like dangerous pests, but pests nonetheless, while mining the premise for its textual worth.
Doppelgängers set against a background of pink curtains will draw obvious comparison to David Lynch, but by the time Cam reaches its finale, it’s maybe more reminiscent of the work of David Cronenberg. This is body horror for the digital age, where the body is not just a physical form, but the projection of that form into the world through the internet. The body is an image, sometimes stolen and distorted. In a world where Unfriended has spawned a sequel, video stuttering deconstructing a face into a glitchy, pixelated image is not especially novel. But when Alice watches the same happen to her copy, context lends an abjection to the image as if the glitch were physical degradation. Madeline Brewer’s wide-eyed gaze is key to both her performance and the text. While she is looked at, she looks back, either at the chat room or at a simulacrum of herself, collapsing subject and object of her look into one complicated entity. When she sees her stolen image degraded by poor bandwidth, she looks upon her own body digitally torn apart. She must reclaim a space and an image that has been taken from her.
Mazzei’s history as a camgirl lends the film an authenticity of experience that is its greatest strength and readily apparent even without knowledge of the writer. A subplot about Alice’s mother (a great Melora Walters) discovering her daughter’s profession is only contrived in its form, as the revelation thrills and unnerves as much as anything else in a short single-take sequence, but the outcome is handled with a sensitivity and kindness that rejects the predictable fallout that might characterize a lesser drama. The world of webcam pornography is approached with neither moral panic (a near miracle for a horror film) nor a simplistic sex positivity that celebrates uncritically. It can be a dark, dangerous world, but it’s one in which Alice chooses to move. Horror in Cam stems from the loss of agency, but the hope of reclamation is never too far gone.
Cam had its international premiere at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival.
Directed by Daniel Goldhaber; written by Isa Mazzei; starring Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Devin Druid, Samantha Robinson, and Melora Walters; 94 minutes.