Fantasia 2023: Home Invasion puts Big Brother 2.0 One Ring Away

Image courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

With over ten million customers, Ring doorbells aren’t going anywhere. With a security camera built into the device that helps to alert homeowners whenever a package is delivered, unexpected company shows up, and thwarting trouble before it gets worse, the Ring doorbell seems like the logical step in the evolution of home security, letting you know what wickedness may lie just beyond the portal to your home. But are these devices helping, or are they hurting our neighborhoods? Through abstract filmmaking, Graeme Arnfield delivers his thoughts on how protecting our homes with these devices creates a classist surveillance system, undermines privacy, and inverts us into fearful, paranoid states, all while using a Ring device to film his experimental documentary. 

Home Invasion was a quick pick for me after reading the Fantasia synopsis and knowing, boldly, that it would be like anything I’d ever seen. I mean, filming with a fisheye doorbell lens is pretty avant-garde. Still, there was more drama in a single still than in most of the films I was looking through while picking my five most anticipated features of the festival. The picture of a young girl walking into her house while a fire looms behind her neighbor’s adjacent house is captured from the perspective of the family’s doorbell. It generally made me fearful of what was happening without having any context. I thought, “I want to know more about this film.” Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long. The image happens to be a part of the film’s opening nightmare, as it begins to present a series of unshakable stories about technological progress and the impasse of social division we’ve arrived at. 

The poster for Home Invasion shows five circles. Four containing faces, one containing the title.
Image courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

To call Home Invasion a documentary may be technically accurate, but it isn’t typical of the genre. Utilizing hundreds of home security video snippets, horror movies involving unwelcome guests such as Scream, The Strangers, Straw Dogs, and Wait Until Dark, and archival patent designs, Home Invasion tells a narrative via text as seen through a peephole, beginning with the inventions that led to today’s Ring camera device. The film prefers the genre of sensory essay. The stories of Marie Van Britten Brown and Jamie Siminoff are told over images as benign and innocent as childhood mischief, as random as an animal encounter, and as pulse-pounding as masked men trying to disable the devices or pry open doors.  

Home Invasion instills fear, yet it’s not in the way you may think. Home Invasion illuminates the gnawing, stomach-churning consternation that arises from these home security devices and details how we arrived here, starting with sharing facts and statistics about what much of the general public believes is a simple doorbell. Every detected motion by the doorbell is met with a text message alerting the user that a threat has been detected on the other side of their door. And if you have a very active doorstep or have been a prior victim of a robbery, those messages can become paralyzing. The film offers statements to the contrarian standpoint, insisting, “Counter to the marketing in a recent survey of Ring owners, many claimed they were more anxious since they installed their doorbells.” While Arnfield doesn’t cite his reasoning throughout the endeavor, Home Invasion offers plenty of reasonable doubt against Ring for viewers to investigate and determine for themselves.  

While no viewable poll of users’ rising tensions exists (so much as I could find), there is a plethora of stories detailing the unwavering anxiety that comes from owning a Ring device, suggesting as much. Max Read’s 2020 New Yorker Article shares many similarities with Graeme Arnfield’s movie, detailing the addictiveness of the social apps Ring doorbells link to and knowing too much about what’s happening in your neighborhood. Max says in the article, after being alerted to a report of a shooting two miles away, “I’ve never once felt scared or unsafe in my apartment, or even in my neighborhood in general. And yet, for a nanosecond, staring at the alerts on my phone, I was seized with panic: A shooting? In Brooklyn?? Motion? At my front door?? What was happening outside my apartment?” 

The fear that Home Invasion is trying to convey is that of the machine that wants you to stay mired in it and the co-opted police state that conflates it. Ring, which is owned by Amazon, is silently creating a culture of shut-ins, debilitated by shock and addicted to the built-in social feeds the film asserts are overflowing with police. Users share videos, spread fear, and have packages delivered because it’s a better option than leaving the house, even if they’re shouting at the driver from safely inside their homes.  

In 2017, Ring servers crashed on Halloween. Overloaded by their product picking up trick-or-treaters en masse, Ring users were frenzied, knowing their homes would be unguarded during a night of mischief. In the following years, Ring would boast about how many children they captured on camera during Halloween—an odd flex, for sure. Arnfield doesn’t use this fact in Home Invasion. However, he does touch on other degrees of suburban paranoia, racism, and classism in how delivery drivers, neighborly arguments, and playing children are dealt with through the device.  

As the film slides into other stories, Arnfield drifts into capitalist constructs, detailing the inception of the steam cotton gin in 1811 that forced many specialized workers out of jobs and offering a disturbing account from silent film director D. W. Griffith, the person to breathe life into silver screen home invasions. Through Griffith’s short film, The Lonely Villa, is a terrifying account of powerlessness, Arnfield shows how technological improvement became the savior in many unthinkable scenarios before noting Mary Molyneux’s journey into sabotage that proves what we all know in 2023: that companies would rather kill than see their money saving machinations destroyed

A fire blazes behind a home while a woman packs her car trunk and a young girl walks toward her home in Home Invasion
Image courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

I was never bored during Home Invasion, but you do get the sense that the film is meeting the paranoid Ring camera users on their level, and in that, succeeds by making the viewer feel unsafe. As far as horror movies go, that is a huge compliment. However, Home Invasion constructs a narrative of fearmongering to fight fearmongering, hoping you’ll see Ring for what they are. The effect is uneven, creating a sense of disbelief because it doesn’t support its facts with sources, leaving it to feel like it’s pushing an agenda. Furthermore, the film is told entirely in text over vignettes, and many will find reading for ninety-two minutes a little taxing. However, you will go to bed scared. Hell, I haven’t stopped thinking of the film since I finished it twenty-four hours ago, and it has left me supremely uneasy. The more my mind elaborates on what a corporation like Amazon could do with the doorbell, particularly standing at the nexus of AI, my thoughts become frighteningly boundless.  

Consider the privacy invasion dilemma posed in 2008’s The Dark Knight when he introduces Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman) to his mesh network of live conversations over cell phones for Batman to find the Joker via Sonar. Batman asks Fox to destroy the device after he finds the Joker, fearing it may be used unethically. That is the level of possibility we’re talking about. If everyone on your street has a doorbell camera, Amazon can access a fully realized autonomous network of your block that uses video instead. With over ten million customers, blackout spots are becoming few and far between.

Ring provided videos to the police eleven times in 2022 without owner consent. In none of the incidents was a subpoena presented or an emergency declared. Documented in a Politico article, Alfred Ng further highlights that Ring’s “facial recognition service Rekognition falsely associated 28 members of Congress with criminal mugshots in 2018.” Ring said it was no longer trying to develop the software, but BuzzFeed found a Head of Face Recognition Research position was still held in 2019. Potentially, Ring is on par to become Big Brother 2.0, and considering many have Alexa inside their homes too, it only gets scarier. As Amazon gets bigger, it forces us to rethink the limited regulations on tech that currently exist and asks us to consider whether we want a company like Amazon in charge of operating this technology.  

Home Invasion triggers technophobia I didn’t even know I had, which led me down this rabbit hole to determine the legitimacy of Arnfield’s documentary. While I wish Arnfield had added a few references along the way, this well seems endless, with stories bound to keep you up all night. Home Invasion deserves to scare the sh*t out of you at least once. However, the experimental nature of the film will likely turn many people off the way Skinamarink did at last year’s Fantasia Festival.  

Home Invasion held its North American Premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 29, with an encore on August 1. It is currently on the festival circuit. 

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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