Voyeurism has been an aspect of horror for quite some time. Alfred Hitchcock employed it. Brian De Palma picked up the mantle after the master, and others have picked up the mantle after De Palma. There’s always that unsettling feeling of being watched…or being the watcher. Director Daniel Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s Cam is a shocking twist on voyeurism in horror. This tale about an ambitious camgirl warps the inherent terror of being watched in bold new ways, as this is story about a girl who knows she’s being watched. The terror comes her being unable to control what people are seeing her do, and it results in an audacious work of horror that never goes as you’d expect.
Alice (Madeline Brewer) works nights as a camgirl under the name Lola. Men tune into her feed to watch her erotic displays and provide her with tips and gifts. She must also remain cautious because there are lonely, desperate men who might cross boundaries in order to get near to her. Regardless, she remains ambitious, working tirelessly to climb the rankings of the cam site and thus increase her earning potential. Part of her occupation means living a double life, as her mother Lynne (Melora Walters) is kept in the dark as to her lucrative job. Things begin to spiral out of control for Alice one morning when she wakes up and finds herself locked out of her cam account. The support line is no help in restoring her access to the account which makes up her livelihood. Then it gets even stranger. Someone is broadcasting from her account, posing as her. At first she thinks it’s just replaying old shows, but Alice soon realizes that the Lola she’s staring at is basically an exact copy of herself. This imposter Lola skyrockets up the site’s rankings and does little things that Alice swore she’d never do. As this mysterious doppelganger gains in popularity, the two lives that Alice has carved out for herself begin to collide. All the while there is no simple answer to the question on her mind: What is happening?
What I find to be the most interesting aspect of Cam is the film’s ability to create an escalating sense of dread and tension without even attempting jump scares or moments of explicit terror. Instead Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei (from story by Goldhaber, Mazzei, and Isabelle Link-Levy) embrace the terror of the unknown and pull us deeper and deeper into the unsettled psyche of Alice as everything she knows slips away for reasons she can’t comprehend. Here is a character who makes a living being watched and is incapable of controlling what people are watching her do. It’s a terrifying twist on the voyeuristic elements that have been in play in horror for decades, and rooting the terror in the psychological aspects of its protagonist and not on moments of shock is an inspired and effective creative choice.
Another aspect that makes Cam such a refreshing film is the fact that practically any horror movie of the past would’ve had the horrors experienced by Alice some kind of moral punishment for her sex work. This film is remarkably sex positive and doesn’t deem its protagonist worthy of punishment for her occupation, and that’s directly because writer Isa Mazzei used to be a camgirl herself. Cam features the surface level horrors she would’ve experienced, such as overeager, creepy male admirers (two of which played well by Patch Darragh and Michael Dempsey), or anonymous and abusive voices in the chat. But the film doesn’t punish Alice for her sex work. She may be facing some kind of moral reckoning for her narcissistic pursuit of climbing the rankings, but not for her occupation which is a refreshingly progressive take in an often regressive genre.
Cam also has a fantastic look for a low budget horror film. Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi fills the frame with a lush neon palate that is at once sexy and ominous. Sturdy assured direction from Daniel Goldhaber ensures that Cam will be a perfect mixture of style and substance, a hypnotic nightmare unfolding in a neon glow. Here’s a film that is seductive visually and stimulating intellectually, building its layers to further your unease.
In what has shaped up to be a great year for horror, Cam stands near the top of the year’s best. It’s an engrossing, audacious work of horror filmmaking that pulls you in and keeps you captivated. Madeline Brewer delivers a stunning performance, balancing the alluring qualities of a camgirl with the visceral terror of someone under an unknown duress. This is one of those works of horror that’ll stick with you well after the credits have rolled, as you rethink the little details and how they factor into the bigger questions at play. One side effect might be that you’ll be left to wonder just who you’re watching the next time you log onto one of those camgirl sites.
A bold twist on the way voyeurism is used in horror, Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei’s Cam is a neon nightmare that embraces the horrors of ambiguity in a sexy, unsettling thrill ride led by Madeline Brewer’s powerhouse performance.