Cam is a ferociously singular, endlessly inventive, and hugely original piece of work. It’s a breath of fresh air in a world of Trumps and Kavanaughs, an angry, rousing call to arms for women everywhere to stand up and be counted, a must-watch horror movie in a year positively loaded with must-watch horror movies. Cam is (rightfully) all over social media right now, with everybody insisting you get on Netflix and watch it immediately, if not sooner. I’m about to do the same, so strap in.
The premise concerns Madeline Brewer’s Alice, or Lola, as per her online identity, a camgirl making big bucks from eager viewers who, when we meet her, is looking to expand her range even further. Lola’s online personality is bubbly, sweet, and flirty, but Brewer’s soft, youthful features give her that disturbingly too-young vibe that tends to attract creepy older men. In fact, she has a couple on the hook who provide seemingly bottomless remuneration and attention, but would like to give her…more.
At first, it seems Lola is about to fall victim to one of her online obsessives, a lonely, sweat man who quickly becomes an IRL stalker, but just like that Cam pulls the stylish shag rug out from underneath her (and us) as, instead, the young entrepreneur’s account is co-opted by a creepy doppelganger. As Alice frantically tries to figure out what the hell is going on, Lola continues streaming on her channel, the lines between reality and fantasy becoming irrevocably blurred as a result.
Cam is the debut feature from director Daniel Goldhaber. But, crucially, it’s presented by he and co-screenwriter Isa Mazzei, also making her feature debut here (a second woman, Isabelle Link-Levy also gets a story credit). It may seem like a small distinction, but in a film of this nature, it’s notable. This is a profoundly female-driven, and female-focused movie. More often than not, it would be presented to us by men and only men.
The fact that two of the three credited screenwriters are women means Cam‘s feminist credentials are worn proudly and without being bogged down with expository, self-important bullshit or the unnecessary use of the word “cunt” (hello, Suspiria 2018). The character of Lola, along with all the other camgirls with whom she interacts, is presented without prejudice. Alice isn’t punished for making a living with her body via gullible men; she’s heralded.
When Alice’s mother discovers how she’s been paying the mortgage (it’s made clear early on that her self-sufficient daughter owns, rather than rents — a clever distinction), although she’s initially horrified, she soon comes around. Alice’s mom worries about her kid’s safety, rather than that she’s potentially disgracing the family. Still, Alice might deal with her fair share of overenthusiastic viewers, but she’s confident enough to live alone and enjoy the fruits of her labor.
Rather than pitting a man against Alice, Cam gives her another woman to contend with, an identical twin who swipes her channel out from under her and quickly rises up the ranks — including, as an exasperated Alice tells customer support for the hosting site, stealing those all-important tips right out of her pocket. Alice is then faced with the prospect of not just losing everything she’s built, but watching helplessly as an impersonator ruins her reputation.
It’s a neat twist on an overdone conceit. As much as Alice contends with stalkers, the basis of Cam‘s frights — and it is a scary movie — is the online world, and the manipulation of the self. Alice is terrified that the new her has taken over for good and she’s powerless to stop her. She’s afraid that she’ll lose everything she holds dear but, more to the point, that “Lola” has her face, her personality, her audience, but is completely outside of her control.
As Alice/Lola, Brewer is exceptional, devouring the leading role she’s more than owed following take-notice turns in the likes of Orange is the New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale. Earlier this year, I caught her in another female-led, super feminist horror movie in the form of Mitzi Peirone’s trippy Braid. She made an impression there, too, as an unhinged, wild-eyed yet disturbingly laser-focused woman living alone in the family’s country pile. But here, Brewer really comes into her own.
Alice/Lola is a likeable heroine, and a formidable Final Girl, for want of a better description, but she’s also fragile and, at least in real life, devoid of any real human contact outside of her immediate family. Brewer’s looks make Cam‘s raunchier moments more uncomfortable, but there’s never a sense that she’s doing anything under duress (even when she resorts to desperate measures to help rankings).
This is a sexy film, but the women are very much in control, the comments from horny dudes flooding by faster than we can even read them, as though they’re completely irrelevant. Aside from her brother and his immature friends, Alice’s only IRL interactions with the opposite sex are with a couple of gross older men. Here, Cam demonstrates the danger of believing an online fantasy both via Alice’s own naïveté and that of her desperate, wannabe lovers.
The movie’s tensest sequence finds her hiding in a restaurant bathroom, before being dragged out kicking and screaming as patrons and staff alike look on, clearly believing that this much older man is fully within his rights to restrain the young woman in the tight dress. She’s the one at fault for going there with him, leading him on, they’re clearly all thinking. She should have been smarter (as it turns out, Alice is smarter, and manages to get away).
Still, she’s rattled, because online everything is under her control. Or, at least, it used to be. Cam plays with the idea that what we choose to put online about ourselves will eventually, somehow or other, come back to bite us. Even when we think we understand what we’re doing, even when we painstakingly curate each moment, it’s all at the mercy of something greater than ourselves, the power of which we’ll never quite understand.
Cam makes the life of a camgirl look both enticing and isolating, sometimes simultaneously. Without giving too much away, there’s a sense early on that things might go a bit Fight Club (any comparisons to that film, prevalent on Twitter, are woefully misguided), which would rob the story of its essential hook. Alice isn’t ashamed of what’s she doing. In fact, she enjoys her job. And why shouldn’t she? It certainly beats sitting at a desk or working the counter at Starbucks.
What’s happening to Alice isn’t a punishment, because she hasn’t done anything wrong. And, in a genre that frequently punishes “bad” women for having the gall to enjoy sex (shocking), it’s incredibly refreshing to watch a film that simply allows its lead to be sexy and in control of her own destiny. Alice might be put through the ringer, but she’s never a victim, and particularly not one of her own making.
Cam is already being heralded as one of the most important horror movies of the year, and as much as that kind of hyper-enthusiastic hyperbole tends to sink even the best flicks (remember the backlash to The Witch? Or Hereditary?), it’s impossible not to overstate just how special this movie is. It’s fiercely feminist, devilishly sexy, consistently gripping, super stylish, and frequently very frightening.
Much like its central character, Cam is utterly unapologetic. And with most female-led horror movies still delivered to us by incompetent men clueless about the female experience (with a few notable exceptions, of course), that’s something truly worth celebrating. The future of horror really is female, if this is anything to go by. Catch Cam on Netflix now (yes, even in the U.K.)
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Daniel Goldhaber
Writer(s): Daniel Goldhaber, Isa Mazzei, Isabelle Link-Levy
Starring: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, Devin Druid
Release date: 16 November 2018 (Netflix)
Studio/ Production Co: Divide/Conquer
Length: 94 minutes