2015 | NR | USA | Victor Zarcoff | 87 min
13 Cameras is a creepy horror film that invokes a very real threat: surveillance—the fear we are being watched without our knowledge. It happens more often than we might think.
According to one 2009 report, “There are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras now deployed in the United States shooting 4 billion hours of footage a week. Americans are being watched, all of us, almost everywhere.”[i]
Playing on anxieties that have only escalated in the post-9/11 years, 13 Cameras suggests that we’re watched not only in grocery stores, at work, and on the street, but also at home. Indeed, the film is at its best when it shows exactly how permeable the home is.
The film centers on married couple Claire (Brianne Moncrief) and Ryan (P. J. McCabe), who have moved to accommodate Ryan’s job, and who are renting a house. Claire is pregnant and “nesting” while her husband goes to work every day. At first glance, their marriage seems somehow foreign (in the early twenty-first century), a throwback to the breadwinning-male / domestic-female 1950s norm—the proverbial haven in a heartless world. But, in actuality, the film soon makes clear that this is unequivocally the post-millennial surveillance society. Other people are always present.
Not least, Claire and Ryan’s landlord, Gerald (brilliantly played by Neville Archambault), is not only watching them in virtually every room of their house—even in the shower, even from the depths of their toilet bowl—but he lets himself into the house with regularity whenever they’re gone, becoming, with his daily treat of illicit bacon burgers, their dog’s best friend. It turns out, moreover, that Ryan is having an affair. His lover (who is also his assistant) also ends up penetrating their home (coming between Claire and Ryan) well before she actually walks in the door. (Apparently she has a key too.)
In its vision of a home that is far from a safe and impermeable haven, 13 Cameras not only suggests the home invasion horror sub-genre but also supernatural films like the Paranormal Activity franchise. Indeed, repeated shots of Ryan and Claire’s pool with what looks like some sort of cleaning device seem explicitly to reference Paranormal Activity 2, with its numerous security cameras positioned around the house, including one overlooking the pool.
But the cameras here aren’t capturing other-wordly entities but very worldly ones. In fact, in some ways, 13 Cameras is more terrifying (and certainly more disgusting) than the Paranormal films. Early on in the film, as the landlord wanders round Claire and Ryan’s house as if he owned it (which, actually he does! The horrors of home rental!), I actually found myself thinking I would prefer a demon occupying my house to a very seedy and apparently very ill-smelling man licking my toothbrush and rubbing it loving around the inside of his mouth. When Claire goes to brush her teeth later that night, she can’t use it because it smells so bad—a truly stomach-churning sequence of events! At that moment, Toby didn’t seem so bad.
As the film goes on, though, it does lose some of its power. The scorned-mistress plot develops as you would expect, albeit in such a lackluster fashion that I found myself longing for Glenn Close and the lofty strains of Madame Butterfly. Other-woman Hannah (Sarah Baldwin) never really seems much of a threat.
The landlord becomes much more than a lascivious spectator toward the end of the film, which leads to one of my major complaints: three healthy young people in their late twenties, it seems, are no match for an elderly man who clearly has trouble walking for much of the film. At one point, moreover, one of those late-twenty-somethings seems utterly unable to dial 911 given what must have been a good five-minute opportunity to do so (and that was after we were forced to accept the premise that a house in a suburban neighborhood somehow only gets cell service outside, by the pool).
The characters, in short, act rather unbelievably, and the women in particular seem almost completely unable to help themselves. There have been some great films in the home invasion sub-genre of late that develop full (and fully capable) female characters: You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2011), Intruders (Adam Schindler, 2015), Hush (Mike Flanagan, 2016), to name three. Particularly in the aftermath of those films, I have little patience with a return to the helpless and idiotic female stereotype.
The film’s promise dissipates to some degree, then, as the creepy premise of surveillance—the intruder wandering at will in our most private spaces and moments—gives way to a focus on rather unlikeable and clichéd characters doing dumb things. The landlord, Gerald, however, is neither insipid nor stupid—and viewers might certainly take pleasure in what becomes of him.
[i] James Vlahos, “Surveillance Society: New High-Tech Cameras Are Watching You,” Popular Mechanics, September 30, 2009.