Directed by Curt Wiser
The internet’s a scary place. Whether its a cyber-haven for malevolent ghosts, as in Pulse, spooky teen melodrama, as in Unfriended/ Friend Request, sexual predators, as in Megan is Missing, or Busta Rhymes, (Halloween Resurrection). Now, in the feature debut from writer/ director Curt Wiser, it’s the backdrop for a suspense horror that puts contemporary web wars in a microcosm. Think Phonebooth by way of Scream and 4Chan.
Gessica (not a typo) is a medic student and single mother with bills to pay. Struggling to make ends meet, she’s also a cam-girl, dancing seductively for well-paying strangers – 30,000 to be exact. Not all of them are nice. Particularly one, who’s been leaving her abusive messages and calling her mum. So far, so nasty. Then things step up a notch when he calls her to exact his revenge for neckbeards everywhere by forcing her to dig out the old black book. It’s a weird request, but then cam-girl fanatics maybe aren’t the most grounded of people. Calling all her former lovers, she confesses how she’s mucked them about in the past, to protect both herself and her kid from the so-called Box Cutter Killer. Cue a series of exchanges about the road less travelled and the various ways people can hurt one another emotionally (usually with them on the receiving end), to save her getting hurt physically. Think a female-driven High Fidelity with more at stake than John Cusack’s pride.
Visually, Cline uses form to underlie meaning with an invasive, voyeuristic style that expertly mimics its subject: online sleaze. The presentation goes from glossy to up close and intimate – though I could have done without the voiceover bits that undermine the omniscient style adopted elsewhere. Wiser also keeps a single location interesting, resulting in a gradual claustrophobia. As you can guess from the minimalist setup, much of the success of the film rests on Erin Cline’s performance. While we get the odd cutaway, jarring in both use and tone, for the most part it’s just us, her and a raspy voiced stalker. Luckily she does an excellent job, oozing the kind of charisma that makes the audience want to spend time with her – despite that in the second half she mostly just has a phone to act against. She gets very into the role, selling the fear well along with the bits where plays cute or sexy for her clients. She’s versatile, and as a calling card this is a darn good one.
No doubt her performance is enhanced by the source material. It’s about 20 minutes in when I realised Cam-Girl wouldn’t go down the obvious route. It’s not so much a high octane thriller, as an experimental and deeply personal story not dissimilar in tone from the excellent Felt. Initially I was put off by some of the characterisation, with the script doing little to challenge the caller’s misogynist world view. The women act like amoral “sluts” and the representation of the titular girls sometimes leans towards the suggestion they’re fallen (though, in fairness, this is countered well by a sex-worker positive scene with Gessica and her friends). But thankfully the longer it goes on, the more nuance Wiser adds to the setup and, in turn, the more layers he gives his flawed protagonist. Some of her relationships are well crafted, especially those with her mum and child. And as the focus transitions from the pros and cons of stripping, to a sense of entitlement on the part of some guys and lad culture, the more I got from it. The tension about who’s in control during sexual transactions is also nuanced, and well integrated throughout in both dialogue and action.
Whilst I applaud the film’s dramatics, I was less taken by Wiser’s horror chops. The all-important escalation simply wasn’t there. By having a disembodied bad guy, who gets minimal screen time, it can be tough to build tension throughout. This is especially true when we only see evidence of what he can do is in passing, via an all too brief video. In trying to save its confrontation for the closing ten minutes, I found the anticipation of it dragged early in the third act as the formula set in. Sure, the phone calls are an organic means to explore Gessica’s character and backing story. But without a ‘he’s in the house’, or ‘he’s on the other side of the door’ threat to accompany them, the key scenes lack a much needed sense of urgency. There just needs to be more of a reason to fear this guy than we get. Phone Booth escalates a similar premise by having shots taken at other people. Cam-Girl needed an equivalence, to do more to make us believe its nuisance caller can also be a nuisance killer.
What little we do see of him is mixed too, with the original portrayal leaning towards that of a grotesque porno-extra showing up to fix the toilet. The film doesn’t take him hugely seriously, so it’s hard for us to. A section that riffs on The Shining is particularly weak, further reducing him to a goofball. Still, the final few minutes won me over again, wrapping events up with a sting in the tale that’s both thematically and literally effective. Really, I didn’t feel like the film was a bad one, and there’s a lot to recommend. But like a spurned ex, I was left thinking about what could have been.
Cam-Girl is available now on DVD and Amazon VOD