Depending on your tolerance for frenzied anti-masker mayhem, your mileage may vary
In the early days of COVID, Rob Savage proved that sheer terror and spectacle could be possible even with the strictest of lockdowns and the sparsest of resources. The Zoom-set seance stunner Host quickly set itself apart from other pandemic cinema with its real-time urgency and relentless pacing. Host admirably strived to make something more of its natural restrictions for the sake of story, proving Savage’s skill as a director and storyteller.
His latest, Dashcam, sees Savage take on the titanic rewards of a bigger-budget sophomore film. Savage and his regular collaborators return to the restrictions of live-streamed media with even more exciting tools at their disposal, courtesy of a lucrative partnership with low-budget, high-concept horror icons Blumhouse. For better or for worse, Savage treats Dashcam like the first and only opportunity he’ll have a budget and scope like this at his disposal—with a lead and pacing that’ll test the limits of even the strongest found-footage diehards.
Fleeing COVID restrictions in the U.S., foul-mouthed, MAGA-branded internet sensation Annie (Annie Hardy of the band Giant Drag) treks to London to reunite with her former punk bandmate Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel). But much to Annie’s chagrin, not only is Britain taking COVID just as seriously, Stretch is even more straight-laced, with a girlfriend (Host’s Jemma Moore) and steady delivery job. Annie wreaks havoc like a Tea Party horsewoman of the apocalypse, wrecking Stretch’s job and relationships in the process. She ultimately steals Stretch’s car for another episode of her live-streamed one-woman rap show (think Carpool Karaoke meets Laura Ingraham ). But when Annie decides to take on another job from Stretch’s stolen phone (via Host’s Seylan Baxter), she plunges herself—and eventually Stretch—into an unforgettable and unpredictable night that’s an unholy union of Good Time, Chronicle, and The Exorcist.
Savage’s knack for developing twists and turns that are both innovative and resourceful made Host into an instant horror classic. Much like his debut, Dashcam is fast-paced and unpredictable, launching Annie and Stretch into one chaotic, practical effects-laden scenario after another. After an initial gut-wrenching escape sequence involving Annie, a bloody, incontinent older woman (Angela Enahoro), and powerful pursuing forces in a takeaway shop, the group finds themselves in sewers, forests, abandoned theme parks, and more. I dare any viewer to guess just where Dashcam might be headed. The infectious thrill of the film rests in this breakneck speed run without a clear destination ahead, forcing us into a role as unwitting and unwilling passengers on a ride through hellish suburban Britain.
Like Host, Dashcam possesses a structure so full of spirit and spontaneity—and it is here that Savage both excels and falters. What made Host so effective wasn’t just its inventiveness despite its limitations, but how conscious Savage and his team were in using those limitations as organic aspects of the story. No matter how balls-to-the-wall Savage and company got with their seance, faltering internet connections, deceptive screen filters, and a ticking 40-minute Zoom window forced both characters and audience to remain captive within the established, relatable rules of Host’s setting. Dashcam, on the other hand, is in a world of horror-defying freedom and scope, a liberation that quickly becomes an albatross around the film’s proverbial neck.
While told through the endless livestream of its main character, Dashcam dynamites any sense of foundation by never fully giving its audience a set of rules. Its central force (which will go unspoiled in this review) seems capable of anything at any given moment—as are the smaller characters fighting for or against it, with Annie, Stretch, and the audience caught helplessly unawares in the middle. While tantalizing bits tease out a larger cosmic game at play, so much of the film’s dazzling mystery devolves into a spatial or logical incoherence. Savage focuses so much on the buildup and climax of each individual set piece that the film becomes chaotic, often blurring or omitting how or why Annie and Stretch leap into the next sequence of stressed out mayhem.
As a result, Dashcam’s audience is forced to rely on an emotional throughline with our leads to guide us through the rampant chaos. While we have the rational Stretch for brief moments of straight-man humor and terror, Dashcam’s emotional core dubiously rests in the violently vitriolic Annie Hardy, who can be ranked among horror’s most patience-testing, insufferable characters.
I don’t say this lightly: Annie is a divisive gauntlet of a character. There are restaurant-wrecking tantrums about wearing masks, an endless spew of anti-media tirades to a rabid virtual audience, and a knack for pissing off anyone at any time with an expletive-laden rapped barb (to say nothing of the end credits). With an unending and unchanging disregard for anyone on her warpath but herself, Annie is an all-timer for one of the least sympathetic characters of all time, not just in horror. It’s a performance whose realism at first glance may be commendable—until, post-film, viewers learn that Hardy’s persona in Dashcam is a far cry from fictional.
And yet, like one of the film’s many car crashes, you can’t look away from Annie’s chaos. In that undoubtedly daring choice, Savage and Hardy try to earn not just the attention of Dashcam’s audience, but their empathy as well. From the beginning, it’s clear that Annie is always in the wrong in whatever situation she’s in, whether it’s stealing Stretch’s car, fleeing accidents, or forcing what allies she makes into increasingly dangerous situations. As muddled as it may become over Dashcam’s runtime, Savage does set up Dashcam’s moral compass in tracking how Annie’s actions have consequences. Annie’s motivated by an audience she never sees, yet they always cheer her on. If there are consequences to face, Stretch or other innocent bystanders bear their brunt while Annie gleefully records and shirks culpability. But when Annie’s signal drops in and out at moments of heightened stakes, her audience subsequently doubts the gravity of her peril, seeing it as yet another of Annie’s infamous stunts.
This last effect is a potentially salient point for Savage to make. It’s one all too timely, as suburban armies of people all too like Annie take to the streets, confusing inconvenience for impinged freedoms at the peril of those around them. For all of Dashcam’s monsters in the night, Savage makes no qualms about how viewers will likely group Annie among them. But as she finally faces real danger, will our anti-masker, fuck-the-media heroine come to a personal, paranormal reckoning for all her audience to see?
Sadly, however, whatever satisfaction can be gleaned in the wake of Annie’s chaos is up to the viewer, which feels like Savage shirking off as much culpability as his lead. Dashcam teases a cutting point about how internet viewers may platform an undeniably toxic personality like Annie, but Savage fails to reckon with how Dashcam platforms the real-life Annie and her controversial viewpoints in the same way. Interviews with Dashcam’s team portend that the film draws a line between the real-life Hardy and a fictional, “heightened” persona—but if such a line seems faint or non-existent between, what’s the point of claiming that such a fictional division exists? I’m not asking or wishing that Dashcam’s Annie have any come-to-Jesus moments regarding her Trumpian, COVID-denying shock and awe ideologies. Rather, I just wish Dashcam had the same self-awareness towards the role it plays in the platforming that it seeks to criticize.
It’s safe to say that Dashcam isn’t for everyone; it’s hard to say if it’s even for anyone. But even with as grating of a character as Annie, Savage and his team’s relentless inventiveness still make Dashcam’s madcap journey worth taking—even if only once and never again.
Dashcam hits theaters and VOD nationwide on June 3rd, courtesy of Blumhouse and Vertical Entertainment.