by Tony Ruggio
Much like the oft-dead rom-com, Netflix has sought to revive another forgotten genre with Cam, an erotic thriller for the YouTube set. Always creepy and occasionally unnerving, it’s another example of Blumhouse’s gift for staking out studio horror and little “indie” horror in equal measure. About a talented, mid-tier cam girl angling for a top 50 rank among all shows, Cam is a trifle of moderate suspense and mediocre success, while also a showcase for Madeline Brewer of Handmaid’s Tale and a welcome-back for a once-great actress named Melora Walters.
On the heels of Fatal Attraction, erotic thrillers were all the rage in the 90’s, a symptom of diminishing MPAA oversight, an ongoing sexual revolution, and changing mores throughout the country. No longer was it morally repugnant or grossly inappropriate to double-down on sex in cinema. From Showgirls to Eyes Wide Shut the genre blossomed, whether cinematic or straight to video. Gen X were raised on the so-called moral majority and Reaganism, and they relished the kink and naughty circumstance of films that refused to pander to Home Alone families and Notting Hill couples. But the new millennium brought the internet and ubiquitous porn, and therefore the downfall of a hot genre that lives or dies by how much, how hott it can rile an audience. Adding insult to injury, Hollywood has embraced the kid-friendly antics of comic books for more than just superhero movies. I challenge you to find among their pallid output any visceral make-out session, much less nudity or sexual content. Was it desensitization or the woke generation’s penchant for liberal puritanism? Probably both, a symptom of those raised on sexting and Apatow sex comedy. It’s no longer provocative, no longer rebellious. Every generation rebels against the last. Reaganism after the 60’s and an age of rowdy hippies, Wokenism after the rise of porn and an age of erotic thrillers.
When a genre is gasping for air, breaking that surface after so long under water, it’s a desperate thing. The comeback is slow, beginning with smaller efforts and lesser ambitions. Take Set It Up, a charming comedy that falls short of rom-com greatness, but it’s not all for naught because these are baby steps, people. Cam is a baby step for erotic thrillers, a simple premise made interesting by the glue of a shiny new sub-genre, and made creepy by Madeline Brewer’s discovery that her up-and-up show has been hacked by the invisible hand of…something. We’re never privy to what it is, we only know that somehow Brewer’s Lola is watching herself perform great feats of cam girl porno-do while doing nothing at home. She’s offline and yet she’s online, there for the “room” to see, taking bubble baths and mimicking suicides. Such violent ends are short-lived and clearly staged, so the “thriller” in erotic thriller is full of bare ass but slightly half-assed in execution. Posited as a near-horror thriller, it’d odd that there are no real stakes beyond a threat to online identity and maaaybe job security, although brief attempts at a little something more physical are made via Lola’s stalker followers. There are stakes for Brewer and Walters, however, one on the rise, the other on the comeback trail after Venom, now this. One could argue that Walters never came in the first place, and director Paul Thomas Anderson would beg to differ. She’s perfectly cast as Lola’s mother, more friend than mom, and Brewer pulls off the difficult place of taking advantage of that leering male gaze without giving into it.
Cam is an effective slice of doppelganger fun, dicey and appropriately sleazy if only remotely suspenseful due to brevity. A short journey from happy norm to bloody semi-porn, it suffers from a lack of narrative investment at the same time it intrigues and entices at the prospect of a once-dead genre re-imagined, or a once-dead actress reborn, or the avid pleasure of watching a film of this nature. Both adopting and eschewing the post-modern sensibility of current trends and cultural debates, Cam signals a return for erotic thrillers, but it’s baby steps at this point.