Never mind what Vogue thinks, 2018 has been a monumental year for horror. Not only have we had commercial and critical successes, such as Hereditary and A Quiet Place, but we even live in a world where a remake of a Dario Argento film is already a frontrunner for potential Academy considerations. Even better, though, is the genre’s push back into the mainstream, not just netting big box office numbers but getting a refreshed critical eye as to the scope of what a horror film can be.
Perhaps because of the groundswell around the popularity of prestige horror, the vastness of the genre can fall into a narrow scope, and smaller genre efforts that may not get a proper theatrical release may not carry the same populous regard as films with a larger marketing reach. That’s why it’s so heartening to see Cam, whose official trailer just debuted, having a viral moment.
When I first experienced Cam as part of 2018’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, my first thought was, “How uncomfortable will audiences get when they watch this with other people?” Because anything even slightly pornographic is typically experienced in an incognito window, not with an engaged crowd. And at least for the opening act, that’s what Camfeels like. There’s a tittering awkwardness as cam girl Alice (an incomparable Madeline Brewer) interacts with her clientele. Her shows are performed for an audience of hundreds of individuals, most of them hiding safely alone behind their screens and usernames.
But Cam, directed by Daniel Goldhaber and written semi-autobiographically by Isa Mazzei, isn’t interested in being alluring or salacious, which is an assumption I foresee viewers having when the film drops on Netflix. Truthfully, Cam is about sex workers. Despite camming having the appearance of pornography due to its ubiquity on popular sites like PornHub, that’s not an accurate depiction of what Alice does in this film. Perhaps it’s better described as a digital escort service. A way for someone, either lonely or looking to safely indulge in their kinks, to make a connection with a person in a way that they otherwise may have never been able to.
But unlike prostitution or exotic dancing, there is no physical contact in the cam world. Which is where a lot of Cam’s early tension arises as one of Alice’s most ardent followers spots her in a local dollar store. Our muscles contract as we steel ourselves for the emotional gut punch we expect, thanks to cinema’s historical lack of nuanced representation when it comes to sex workers. We’re expecting something extreme like an assault to occur because we’ve been primed from past representations in films that victimize the protagonist. But what makes Cam so important is that the film requires us to consciously let go of any preconceived notions we may have about sex work. Because Alice is anything but a victim.
Cam is a sex-positive, feminist horror film about a woman calling the shots on what she does with her own body. While we may bring with us ingrained prejudgements thanks to decades of cinematic conditioning, Mazzei’s complex narrative demands us to leave that all at the door. Because by having discomfort with what Alice chooses to do, we have already missed the point of the film. While there is a gloss of danger, we internalize our fear for Alice far more than what the character is actually experiencing. Despite her consent, we still feel like she isn’t really consenting to this life. Despite her enthusiasm, we still have a voice in our heads saying, “She wants out.” And that’s not fair to the character. Because Alice doesn’t want to stop her show, and that’s the core to why the film is so unbelievably groundbreaking.
The moment Julia Roberts hits the screen in Pretty Woman, as an audience, we immediately think, “Wow, I really can’t wait for her to be saved from a life of prostitution.” And we carry this instinct with us into Cam, until we realize we can’t. Because, for once, we are not looking for a woman to be saved from a life of sex work, but rather for her to return to her passions. And her passions just so happen to be her cam show. And who are we to judge someone for confidently following their passion?
Cam’s importance doesn’t lie within its horror story, but rather in its hero’s journey. You’ll notice I’ve not talked about the scare’s or the genre beats in this explosive techno-chiller about doppelgängers and stolen identity because this film’s importance isn’t tethered to its genre classification. Which is arguably what the takeaway should be for our modern crop of grown-up horror: that beneath its exploitation roots lies a commentary on the human condition.
Save for Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, none of the horror films destined to top critic picks this year have made such a profound statement. Because watching Cam is an exercise in personal reflection, forgiveness, and growth. Understanding deeply ingrained past judgments and transcending them to broaden our own cultural awareness. To become better people. And in a world brimming with toxic masculinity, misogyny, and continued violence against women, movies like Cam may very well save a life by simply opening someone’s eyes.