FANTASIA – CAM: A Psychological-Horror Flick for this Paranoid Internet Era
DIRECTOR: Daniel Goldhaber
WRITER: Isa Mazzei
CAST: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Devin Druid, Samantha Robinson, Melora Walters
An extremely driven camgirl, obsessed with being the top ranking performer, soon finds herself replaced by an eerie duplicate while her life slowly falls apart.
CAM is a very smart, slick, and effective psychological thriller about the rarely seen on screen profession of the webcam sexworker. Written Isa Mazzei (a former camgirl, herself), and directed by Daniel Goldhaber (her longtime friend), CAM is pretty spectacular for a first time film effort. In fact, it won a prize at FANTASIA (where it had its world premiere) for best first feature, along with best screenplay.
At times CAM is equal parts Hitchcock, DePalma, and Lynch. It’s right out of that new wave of modern day horror films with just the right amount of thrills and surreal visuals with an honest look at sexwork without being exploitive or preachy. It’s a gorgeous looking film that keeps you on the edge of your seat, with a great cast, amazing score, and clever themes.
CAM tells the story of Alice (MADELINE BREWER), a young woman who works as webcam girl that uses the name of Lola. Lola is really good at what she does. She’s one of the top girls on a very competitive webcam pornsite. She takes the whole sexcam thing to the next level. She works every day, coming up with new shows, new gimmicks, and new ways to get her loyal viewers to tune in, and of course, to tip very, very well.
Alice is very successful and very good at what she does and she’s always raising the bar. She makes a really good living doing this, always chatting with her top clients throughout the day, always receiving gifts in the mail, always extremely focused on the job… yet always sticking to her basic rules and never letting it bleed into her personal life.
This isn’t enough though, because Alice needs Lola to be the best, and she’s constantly obsessed with ranking higher and higher on the camsite, and cracking that all-important top 50, with her eye really at the very top.
And just when the film was an already compelling character study of a determined artist, it takes a giant turn into the weird… Alice finds herself unable to log into her Lola account, and eventually finds an exact duplicate appears to have taken her place!?! Something is very wrong and something is off about this new Lola. Pretty soon Alice has a new obsession as the mystery of this eerie duplicate soon takes over her life as the doppelganger slowly creeps into hers.
CAM very much feels like a really good episode of BLACK MIRROR (which the lead was also in). It has a great score, is beautifully shot and framed, and has some really clever ways of showing alice at work while also displaying her audience on screen without ever getting boring. It takes an enormous amount of skill to successfully make chat logs and computer screens effective and thrilling on film, This film does that right. Goldhaber never stays too long in that world. There’s a good balance of both real world interaction and screens.
Goldhaber and Mazzei take identity theft to a whole other worldly level, sometimes in a very Kafkaesque manner. CAM is also, weirdly, very topical, given the recent controversy of Deepfakes, which had nothing to do with the inception of this film, other than being eerily quite timely.
Above all, this is a tour de force character piece. Madeline Brewer (HANDMAID’S TALE, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK) is perfectly cast and extremely effective as the lead. She’s essentially playing differents 4 roles in this film: Alice, her likeable, yet career-focused true self; Lola, her bubbly and sexy Webcam persona; Alice, the loving daughter that she shows her family and friends outside of her profession; And the other Lola, the creepy, otherworldly entity. All of these are part of the same person, and Brewer perfectly captures all of that and more on screen.
The range Brewer displays is incredible and you really feel for her as she slowly loses her mind to the scary notion of another her running around pretending to be her. She becomes utterly obsessed, sometimes utterly helpless, understandably very paranoid, but forever driven and determined to get to the bottom of her bizarre copy. Or has she simply pushed herself too hard?
As for the other Lola, Brewer manages to bring the right amount of mystery and occasional creepiness to the role. This is especially apparent when Alice and Lola confront one another in a memorable and extremely intense moment that’s just as effective on multiple viewings as it was upon the first.
On the note of spectacular scenes, one scene near the end was a thoroughly complicated set up involving a mirror and a webcam stream, and the hundreds of various mirrored reflections going on to infinity. It looks so effortless that you don’t even consider a lot of that was assembled in post-production. It would have been impossible to shoot otherwise, but it looks so damn great on film. There’s a lot of wonderful moments like this throughout the picture. It had an extremely clever and impressive FX crew.
This movie is very much akin to to WHIPLASH or BLACK SWAN in terms of extremely driven artists that are very focused and obsessed with their art and getting ahead, which was one of the aims of the filmmakers– in fact, this film is right up there with BLACK SWAN in terms of messed up nightmare fuel to go along with dark themes of obsession.
One can argue that it’s up to the viewer (in any of those films) to decide whether they’re too focused or overly driven in their art, often at the expense of their family or lives, but this hyper focus represents that hurdle that all artists either go through or flirt with at many times to achieve their goals with their art. Sometimes those hurdles are non-tangible ghosts in the machine.
Another theme in this film is about the online self that so many of us display on the interwebs every single day of our lives, and this film answers the question, what were to happen if that version of us grew mind of its own and achieved sentience? We share so much both willingly and unwillingly. Internet privacy is a constant concern. People and Elections get hacked. What about entire personalities? How much of you is actually you and how much is just a facade? What is the real you these days?
This film constantly pushes the envelope. My jaw hit the floor within the first 5 minutes of this film. I just kept watching in awe and utter disbelief of what was going on and was immediately hooked and wanted to see more. That happens a few times in this film. And everytime an extreme moment of WTF happens, it’s met under very different circumstances, for very specific reasons, sometimes representing a different facet of of Alice. It’s this clearly thought out and nuanced approach that just makes this film such an utter and fresh joy to watch.
Another thing I love is that the filmmakers never fully explain certain things, which is great, because it’s more effective not fully knowing, rather than having elaborate expository dialogue explaining away the weirdness. This mystery adds even more tension to an already tense journey!
This film wowed the crowds at its FANTASIA world premiere and subsequent showing, and a few days ago Netflix picked it up for distribution. Hopefully it’ll be one of many from the team of Goldhaber and Mazzei, because these two are vital new voices in film keeping great genre film fresh and alive. CAM is a film that immediately grabs your attention and is an absolutely riveting psychological-horror/thriller perfect for this modern era of internet paranoia.
CAM will be hitting NETFLIX in the near future.