CAM is a sex-positive thriller about a sex worker who loses her online identity, privacy and bodily agency to a terrifying supernatural entity
Sexually active women rarely fare well in horror films. It’s practically a rule of the genre that if a character is overtly sexual, they’re doomed, especially if they’re a young woman. It’s a misogynistic trope which, at least over the past two decades or so, has been valiantly bucked against by smarter meta-horror flicks, from Scream (1996) to Cabin in the Woods (2012). After all, if the Final Girl can’t have agency over her own body and sexual expression, especially after outrunning or outwitting some deranged serial killer or demonic force, what hope is there for the rest of us?
In Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber’s nightmarish, neon-lit CAM, our Final Girl is a young woman named Alice, who represents the epitome of sexual autonomy. Alice (played with profound humanity by The Handmaid’s Tale’s Madeline Brewer) works as a cam girl on a porn live streaming site, but she’s not a victim of her industry and it’s not her line of work that disempowers her. Rather, it’s the theft of her privacy and identity that turns her world upside down. An immersive cybersexual thriller that plunges viewers into the equally fantastical and mundane world of sex work, CAM taps into universal digital anxieties and normalises an often misrepresented industry: web camming.
Authenticity and compassion ooze from every corner of the film, thanks in part largely to an electrifying screenplay by rising film writer Mazzei, a former cam girl herself. “The movie is about a lack of agency and a lack of control,” she says. “Alice loses control of her identity and agency over her own image. That’s what’s scary about it. The first 30 minutes is the most important part, where you see she has agency over her body and her work, because that’s where we’re building empathy.”
Featuring deliciously lush set design courtesy of production designer Emma Rose Mead (who worked on Janelle Monae’s “PYNK” video), CAM lures viewers into the fantasy of the protagonist's digital world before delivering a brutal gut punch when Alice – who cams under the name “Lola” – is abruptly locked out of her account. She then watches in horror as a digital doppelgänger takes over her work online and, eventually, life offline. Like David Cronenberg meets Sophia Coppola, the film is pure, fucked up existential technological terror laced with Tumblr-worthy eye candy.
“Horror is an incredible outlet to talk about subversive ideas and things that we’re scared of. You can make politically subversive ideas digestible to a mainstream audience,” Mazzei says. “I think sex work can be a tool to feel agency over your body in a patriarchy that is constantly negating that agency. Often people like to write, especially in horror narratives, about sex workers who are saved from sex work or learn that sex work is ‘bad’. But actually, it’s an incredible protest against a patriarchal society that tells us we don’t have any right over our own bodies. As a sexual assault survivor and who gets catcalled in the street, harassed in bars and grabbed against my consent, sex work was a place where I felt I had full control over my body. We need more representation of that experience of sex work in the mainstream media.”
Below, we speak to Mazzei about the importance of authentic representations of sex work, how misogyny haunts her film and how her own experiences were worked into Alice’s fictional yet hyper-real world.
The film fantastically normalises camwork, which is so stigmatised. Why was it so important for you to portray it as what it is?
Isa Mazzei: Before I even decided to make a genre movie or any of the film plot points, I knew I needed to make something that would help normalise the industry that I was working in. So much of the stigma comes from a lack of accurate representation. In the media, sex work has always been (viewed as) a seedy, exploitative industry. An entire side of it is ignored, which is the side of people who have a job that they do. A job that they choose. I decided, ‘Well, fuck it, I’m going to make something.’
One of the things that struck me while watching the film was how much planning Alice goes through to set up her work calendar and video concepts and props, and how she manages her work-life balance.
Isa Mazzei: Thanks for noticing that. That was very deliberate – I think there are a lot of misconceptions about sex work. ‘Oh, if you just take your clothes off, you’ll make a ton of money!’ That’s absolutely not true. Sex work is work. It’s a business. You get out what you put into it. Alice is really ambitious and she treats it like a startup. She’s tracking her tokens, she’s mapping her shows, she’s figuring out which guys are gonna tip her… that’s the way that the cam girls I know in the industry operate. We all know so much about our viewers and our show and which nights we need to do which types of shows to be the most successful. That’s a part that’s often ignored, and yet that’s so necessary in order to normalise and de-stigmatise it – to show all of the thought and hard work that goes on behind the scenes to make it look so effortless from the other side of the screen.
The room Alice cams in as ‘Lola’ is so different than the rest of her apartment, which creates an interesting dichotomy between the fantasy you see on screen versus her everyday life. When her digital doppelganger exposes the private areas of her home, it’s frightening because it highlights how delicate and important how we curate ourselves online and what we choose to share is.
Isa Mazzei: That’s the thing about digital identity and why this story is so relatable. We all have these curated selves that we put online. We deliberately choose what we’re gonna share and what we’re not. It’s easy to make assumptions about someone’s life based on their Instagram feed. I think that for Alice, her pink room is this hyper-curated space, a fantasy that she exists in – it’s really a reflection of the fact that camming is her everything.
It’s her art, it’s her passion, her career and ambition. Her outside world is not that way. Her room is kind of messy and her house is still in boxes, and her furniture is still wrapped up from the store. She hasn’t really spent that much time in her outside space because her heart is in her camming space and that’s what matters most to her. Daniel, the director and I, had long conversations with (production designer) Emma about juxtaposing these two spaces to make sure that an audience could feel the richness of this camming space. The pink room is fun to look at; you want to be in the pink room.
“Cam girls are a beautifully supportive community. I still have friends that are cam girls and we’re all so supportive of each other, but we are pitted against each other by these structures that we need to participate in” – Isa Mazzei
There’s a scene where Alice hits her goal rank as a cam girl, and confetti rains down – she’s so excited to celebrate the milestone. Almost immediately, the moment is overshadowed by another cam girl. Could this be read as a commentary about the fleeting nature and pressure of social media and internet culture?
Isa Mazzei: Thanks for noticing that moment, too! These digital selves that we create are so fleeting. Success on the internet is fleeting. Alice touches her goal and then she watches it slip away from her, and if anything, that just inspires her to go even further and to push even harder. But I think more than that, the fact that this rank is so malleable and moves so fast is reflective of how actual rankings work on cam sites. You’re never safely at your rank. You could drop at any moment. Anything online is a really insecure existence. You can have fame online and it can go away in a second. Or you can have anonymity online, and that can go away in a second.
The film is so relatable in that sense. It makes it very effective as a horror film – it creates a sense of tension and anxiety.
Isa Mazzei: For me, the ranking thing is also an indictment of the patriarchal structures at play, as well as the cam site itself, which pits women against each other. The thing about camming is cam girls are a beautifully supportive community. I still have friends that are cam girls and we’re all so supportive of each other, but we are pitted against each other by these structures that we need to participate in, because your ranking determines where you show on the home page. When people go to a cam site, who’s scrolling to page four to find someone to watch? We have these structures that force us to compete with each other, in ways that we don’t even want to.
CAM communicates the autonomy you can have as a woman in this field, against the sexism and misogyny both inside and outside of sex work culture. There are two moments in the film that speak to this: when Alice calls tech support, who fails to help her in any meaningful way, and when she alerts the police, who hit on her. I thought these scenes really represented the sociopoliticial and economic structures that fail sex workers.
Isa Mazzei: It was important to me to have the cop scene – sex workers are not treated fairly or taken seriously by law enforcement. Assault and violence that happens in the sex industry goes underreported, because when you report it, you get shit on. Or you get harassed, or ignored by the very people that are supposed to protect you. We live in rape culture where women are blamed for what happens to them, and women who choose to engage in sex work are blamed even more for things that happen to them. That’s incredibly dangerous. I think the most terrifying thing about the cop scene is that every line that the cops say is something that has been said to either me or a friend of mine, or something that I’ve read about that was said to an actual sex worker. I didn’t have to write or fictionalise anything for the cop scene.
Another thing is – this isn’t everyone, of course – some of the men consuming my content wanted to ‘save’ me from camming. They would offer me large amounts of money so that I ‘wouldn’t have to do this anymore’. And I would say, ‘No, love what I’m doing, it’s my job. You’re not gonna pay me to not do my job anymore. I’m not interested in that’.
So why a horror film? Why not a drama or a documentary?
Isa Mazzei: Horror is not only my favourite genre of film, but also something that I think is incredibly powerful for building empathy, and a tool for bringing people inside someone’s headspace. It’s really good to universalise – to take subversive ideas and make them relatable. I want people to go into this film for the thrill of it, for the colors and how for delicious it looks. As they sit there on the edge of their seats, they might not realise they’re relating to the agency of a sex worker.
A man actually laughed at me at a Q&A a few days ago while I was introducing the film before a screener. I said, ‘as a former sex worker…’ and he let out a scoff. After the show, a friend came up to me and said, ‘Why didn’t you call this guy out?’ And I said, ‘This is the exact person I want to be at this movie’. I want people who would never normally interact with this space to engage with Alice and be exposed to these ideas.
“I didn’t have to write or fictionalise anything for the cop scene” – Isa Mazzei
Is there a scary or strange experience that happened while you were camming that you worked into the script?
Isa Mazzei: I had a viewer who came to my hometown. The contact was different than what happens to Aice, but that was definitely an experience. That feeling of real world and cam world colliding was something that was really difficult to process. Looking at Alice or ‘Lola’, she comes from this place of having this curated digital persona and then at a certain point wonders, ‘Do my viewers actually like me, or do they just like this persona? How much of this persona is actually real?’ I loved my viewers and formed genuine friendships with a lot of them, so it was really hard to know that they were seeing this digital version of me.
Another thing I took a lot of inspiration from was this feeling of alienation from my own body, which happened a lot when my videos were pirated and screen captured without my consent and posted all over the internet without any attributions to me. I would be watching my own naked body (on Pornhub) that was, all of a sudden, in no way actually tied to me. It wasn’t tied to my persona, it was just this disembodied version of myself existing in the world. That was really terrifying and that’s what ‘Lola’ is: the realisation of those experiences.
What are your thoughts on the impact of net neutrality – or lack thereof – on porn and camming?
Isa Mazzei: Any laws that restrict people’s access to the internet and people’s access to information is dangerous, period. People shouldn’t be charged different amounts of money to access different types of sites. That would absolutely devastate any camgirls or any porn providers because there’s already a difficulty in getting paid for porn. Especially mainstream porn – we tend to think of it as something that should be free, even though it’s a lot of people’s careers.
I want to talk about SESTA/FOSTA, two pieces of legislation that greatly restrict sex workers’ abilities to advertise and build communities online. That’s really dangerous because sex workers, especially who work offline, are reliant on these communities in order to background check clients, ask for references, and make sure that they’re informed and looking out for their safety. I think the issue is that so much legislation around sex work is passed from this paradigm of saving sex workers without actually asking sex workers what they want… If you want to pass legislation that’s going to help sex workers and keep them safe, you need to be talking to sex workers instead of deciding what’s best for them.
What do you hope people will take away from your film?
Isa Mazzei: I hope viewers have a really fun experience watching the movie and I hope they walk away with a little more empathy for not only camgirls, but sex workers as a whole. I hope that they like Alice, that they relate to her, that they carry that with them when they are engaging with other media and when they’re voting on legislation that affects sex workers. It’s so easy to use harmful, derogatory language like ‘whore’, or to laugh at jokes where a prostitute is treated as a disposable object. I hope that people, through building empathy and through engaging in these conversations, can realise that’s not okay. I think it’s so important that we continue listening to underrepresented voices, and I hope that this film can be a small part of that.
CAM is available to watch on Netflix now