2020s

TIFF Review: Rob Savage’s ‘Dashcam’

Dashcam 2021 Movie - Film Review

The “punk” mentality and persona is ultimately one that dead ends in self-destruction. It’s not hard to see why such a lifestyle is attractive and intoxicating, especially within the music industry: it’s loud, brash, challenging and aggressive. Yet in much the same way yesterday’s radicals become today’s conservatives, punk artists tend to end up railing against progressive politics and join — deliberately or by happenstance — what they perceive to be the most alternative group, which is usually right-wing (or worse, as in the “Nazi punk” phenomenon). Director and co-writer Rob Savage’s horror film Dashcam seems to be commenting upon this at first glance, chronicling the long, strange, dangerous journey of a livestream musician-cum-performance artist with MAGA beliefs who gets swept up in a mysterious and deadly occult ritual. Yet while the movie taken on its own seems like it could potentially be a provocative work of fiction, the fact that the musician protagonist of the film (Annie Hardy) is the real-life woman playing herself throws such an interpretation out the window. Dashcam is a mainstream horror film that’s very much in the tradition of other punk exploitation filmmakers like Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma group, a shock rock-style movie that’s brazenly and irresponsibly controversial.

Savage broke out from years of directing short films with last year’s Host, a movie that took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic and concurrent lockdown by presenting the film as a real-time Zoom hangout, taking the baton from “Screenlife” horror films like Unfriended (2014) and bringing it up to the minute. Dashcam continues this style, with Savage presenting the movie as one long livestream, albeit with surreptitious time cuts. The reason for it being a livestream is because that’s the main medium for the real Annie Hardy, who broadcasts herself driving around Los Angeles ranting and improvising incendiary songs on her stream entitled “Bandcar.” In Dashcam, Hardy decides on a whim to leave L.A.’s lockdown, travel to London and drop in unannounced on an old bandmate of hers, Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel). After tagging along with Stretch to a restaurant and causing a scene thanks to refusing to wear a mask, Annie steals Stretch’s car and delights her viewers (who continually comment on the action throughout most of the movie in a typical internet-y detached way, which is a nice touch) by accepting a delivery request at a closed-down restaurant where the distressed owner pleads for Annie to transport a sickly old woman, Angela (Angela Enahoro), to a certain address. Once Annie decides to do so for the sake of her stream, Angela’s condition gets worse, Stretch tracks down Annie to get his car back, and the two soon find that Angela is not just a victim but a deadly threat. 

Savage proved that he had a knack for constructing tense and suspenseful found footage setpieces in Host, and Dashcam kicks things up several notches. The film’s title is actually a bit of a misnomer, given that Annie’s camera spends a lot of time off of a car’s dash as she runs around various creepy locations in London. Savage has fun throwing the camera (meaning Annie, or whomever happens to be holding the device at the moment) into the middle of impressively dangerous-looking situations, everything from falling out of trees to car crashes to attacks from a grotesque and well-presented creature known as The Parasite. Like the best Screenlife features, he also knows how and when to deploy the stream’s chat feature, bringing a good dose of humor into the film via that peanut gallery along with making it feel that much more realistic (there’s a cheeky reference to Host in the stream’s chat, making Dashcam the next part of a Rob Savage COVID Cinematic Universe, apparently). As with most found footage horror films, there are moments that are a bit contrived in terms of their composition or veracity, but the overall effect is riveting, making Dashcam feel like one big carnival dark ride. 

Unfortunately, Hardy appears throughout every moment of Dashcam, and how one feels about the film depends largely on how much one can stomach the lead actress. Hardy’s obnoxiousness in the movie’s opening moments may seem like the typical beginning of a horror character arc — after all, many horror movies feature a character who is blatantly awful but eventually get their just desserts. Yet Hardy isn’t a hapless protagonist headed for poetic justice, but rather the Final Girl who must survive the night, and that’s a big difference. Savage and his co-writers (Gemma Hurley, Jed Shepherd) do their best to keep suspense up by making the forces who menace Hardy as dark as possible, yet Hardy never tones herself down or changes her tune from being belligerent and offensive. In other words, she’s a character without an arc because she’s not actually playing a character. Dashcam essentially becomes an Annie Hardy movie rather than a film that she happens to star in, making the flick the horror film companion to the sci-fi Die Antwoord-starring trashfire Chappie (2015). There’s no denying Hardy’s dominance of Dashcam, as she even freestyle raps the end credits. 

The irony is that if Hardy were playing a character, Dashcam might be easier to embrace. There’s a sick sort of thrill to be had in seeing a vaccine denying, MAGA supporting mask-rejecting looney be attacked by a demonic cult and parasitic creature, yet there’s little suspense to be had when it becomes clear that Annie isn’t headed for a stern lesson. In this way, Dashcam unintentionally reinforces the idea that protagonists must be likable in some fashion, even if depiction obviously doesn’t equal endorsement. Savage seems content to exploit our current COVID-addled world for cheap thrills — with this film, it becomes even more apparent that Host’s setting was there for exploitation, not deeper resonance, and it’s true that the Zoom-themed movie and Dashcam are part of a long history of writers and directors blatantly using current events for an easy horrific boost. Yet while Hardy’s awfulness does provide some comedy at times (if terms of laughing at, if not with), it feels like the movie is just another platform for her livestream. In the 00s, Hardy was voted by music mag NME as one of the “Coolest People” of the year, and now her social media feeds are dominated by antagonistic, paranoid, anti-vaccine propaganda. It just goes to show that anyone can be preyed upon by evil, parasitic forces which change them irrevocably.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.

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