In 1966, a Black New York nurse named Marie van Britten Brown invented the first video home security system. She lived with her husband, Albert, in an unsafe neighborhood and was often home alone when Albert worked nights. Frustrated by the apathy of the police toward her safety concerns, the van Britten Browns created a contraption that would pass a camera over various peepholes in the door, providing a live feed of the doorstep. This innocuous tale of innovation is relayed in the opening minutes of Graeme Arnfield’s astonishing essay film, Home Invasion, which premiered at the Berlinale this week. In Arnfield’s telling of this story, however, Marie became the architect of her own doom, as “images of the outside streamed into her home,” and it was invaded after all.

From this ominous starting point, Arnfield takes his viewer on an increasingly disquieting journey through several instances of heightened individual fear that were caused by, or became entwined with, moments of technical advancement: Jamie Siminoff and the advent of the camera doorbell in 2004; D. W. Griffith’s cinematic innovations with cross-cutting action in The Lonely Villa (1909); Mary Molyneux’s involvement with the machinery-hating Luddites at a Lancashire textile mill in 1811; William Murdoch’s invention of the doorbell in 1817. Arnfield presents each case as being incited by a nightmare — of home invasion, of professional ruin — creating a persuasive interconnected narrative of progress through paranoia.

Home Invasion, dir. Graeme Arnfield, 2023

That very paranoia seeps malevolently from every perfectly calibrated element of Home Invasion. The film’s distinctive visual style leaves a considerable portion of the screen black throughout, with the various forms of found footage and the filmmaker’s intertitle narration confined to a rounded central picture, representing the doorbell camera’s watchful circular eye. The imagery itself comes from different sources depending on the chapter: van Britten Brown’s section is accompanied by cropped patent illustrations, Griffith’s by film excerpts, and Siminoff’s by doorbell camera footage found online. The inclusion of actual camera footage places audiences in the position of the homeowners, not only making us privy to their point of view but actively eliciting our suspicion on their behalf. Describing Siminoff’s business-orientated pivot from household convenience to home protection aid, Arnfield points out that Siminoff “had conquered his nightmares by profiting off ours.” The distorted clanking of chains, portentous knocks, and discordant scrapes of the excellent sound design by Baudouin Oosterlynck and Sarah Naylor only escalate the unease.

Arnfield is clearly something of a technology skeptic, at least in the sense of wanting to highlight the ways in which unchecked development regularly comes at the expense of our own liberties, and most often persecutes the already marginalized by reinforcing existing social dynamics in favor of rich corporations and law enforcement agencies. Here, he guides audiences through a terrifying underworld of systems designed to fundamentally separate us, and that have been subsequently appropriated by those in power — for data, surveillance, control. At one point, Arnfield describes the notion of “a horror film waiting on your doorstep,” but Home Invasion seems to suggest it’s already in the house.

Home Invasion, dir. Graeme Arnfield, 2023

Home Invasion screens at the 2023 Berlinale Film Festival on February 24.

Ben R. Nicholson

Ben Nicholson is a freelance critic and curator based in London. He is the editor of ALT/KINO, and his writing can be found in Sight...