What we mean by horror is something that expands and evolves over the years. This is perhaps especially true of tech horror. From the possibilities of electricity being harnessed to horrific and tragic ends in Frankenstein, to the modern slew of desktop thrillers, horror writers and filmmakers have always harnessed new tech for new scares.
Cam, written by Isa Mazzei (who herself used to work as a camgirl) introduces us to Alice (Madeline Brewer), who does cam shows as Lola and is working her way up the rankings on her site, aiming to crack the top 50 with the aid of the guys who regularly show up in her room to watch and tip her. One day, Alice wakes up to find not only that she’s locked out of her account, but that someone with her face and her online persona seems to be livestreaming from it.
I like to think that if you meet me in life you’ll find me much the same as who I am online, but let’s face it, every one of us has a digital identity that is somewhat different from who we really are. We may hide more of ourselves online, we may reveal more, but there are always going to be distinctions because we can shape our persona exactly as we please from behind a screen. This difference is Alice’s living, but we can see at the beginning of the the film that while her cam persona is quite different to who she is in life, the two have begun to bleed together. When we first see her sitting and talking while her mother (Melora Walters) works we see the divide in action: in conversation she’s simply chatting away with her mom, but on her phone she’s composing texts and sending photos to play on the fantasies of her fans. The loss of control of one side of that equation; ceding your digital identity to someone else, who could do anything with it is both a very modern and a very potent terror.
The divide between the Alice and Lola personae – initially reflected in the ‘pink room’ Alice has set up for her shows – becomes more pronounced as the film goes along and Alice gets deeper into both paranoia and her investigation of how this has happened to her and how to fix it. This divergence of the characters only serves to showcase Madeline Brewer’s excellent performance. Brewer is credited as playing two roles, Alice and Lola, but what’s interesting to me is the very subtle way she draws distinctions between the early Lola and her doppelganger, making the later Lola even more of a tailored object for her audience but making the shift slow enough that you can believe her fans wouldn’t question it. What’s most notable in this shift is the loss of the more innocent aspect of the Lola that we initially see; you wouldn’t catch the doppelganger dolled up to eat her dinner as a ‘date night’ with her viewers. In the film’s most striking scene (beautifully staged by director Daniel Goldhaber, with both Alice and ‘Lola’ endlessly reflected in their own mirrors) the two are finally on camera together for their audience and the grit that Alice has found is contrasted with the personification of fantasy that Lola has become. Brewer is great on both sides of that perpetual reflection.
Something that comes through in Brewer’s performance as well as the writing and direction is the film’s lack of judgement of camgirls. Alice’s view of herself is more as an entrepreneur, she takes her work seriously and sets rules for herself. This is another aspect of why it’s disturbing losing control to this doppelganger, who breaks them. Indeed the film sets up a scene where her family discover what she does (thanks to Alice’s brother’s friends) and it is those judging her that it sets up as both the villains and the hypocrites – they were watching – of that scene. This also pays off nicely in one of the film’s relatively few laughs, when Alice’s mother says that she’s since watched some of her work.
While there are hints that we might end up going down some kind of monster route (and the argument that we create digital monsters is well taken) the horror here remains psychological and technological. In many ways this strikes me as something of an extension into 2018 of the themes that David Cronenberg addressed with Videodrome and eXistenZ. They may not yet have the experience to reach those levels of greatness, but Goldhaber and Mazzei have a grasp on the issues and an intelligent and provocative way of addressing them through a horror lens. This is horror filmmaking with something to say and which leaves you with something to think about. I hope it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle when Netflix releases it.