Dashcam was reviewed out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.
Director Rob Savage is gunning hard to become the king of pandemic-era horror. Last summer, he wowed critics with Host, a savage and sharp séance movie set during lockdown and “shot” across a Zoom call. Now, he’s back with Dashcam, another screen life horror tale set amid COVID-19’s stranglehold. But despite jump scares, a vicious monster, and a studio-backed budget, this much-anticipated follow-up is a repugnant, incoherent jumble that ruthlessly rips off The Blair Witch Project while treating a global catastrophe as a provocative gimmick.
Dashcam follows Annie Hardy, an L.A. musician fleeing lockdown to visit a former bandmate in England. Across the pond, she swiftly wears out her welcome by scoffing at COVID precautions, angering his girlfriend and endangering his job — and then she steals his car. This devil-may-care attitude turns uniquely dangerous when she accepts a stack of cash to drive a sickly stranger to a remote address. Of course, there’s more to this task than meets the eye. Soon, she’s fighting for her life against a ferocious foe she doesn’t understand.
This follow-up reunites Savage with his screenwriting partners on Host, Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd. However, in the director intro ahead of its TIFF debut, Savage noted there wasn’t a screenplay for Dashcam as much as a “skeleton outline.” From there, the team went into the woods and shot a bunch of improvised scenes on their iPhones. Basically, they Blair Witched it, having their cast act out spooky scenarios in a found-footage set-up. Their horror-struck heroine even pays homage to Heather Donahue’s iconic “I’m sorry” moment (though with a glib twist). However, unlike its inspiration, Dashcam is woefully lacking in momentum. Its protagonist has no motivation or even curiosity that would urge her to explore the mysterious evil that derails her journey. She just crashes into one situation after another, making for an episodic string of violent encounters.
In a clever move, the screen life framing of the film reflects Annie’s live-for-the-moment shortsightedness. She hosts a live-cast musical improvisational show where commenters throw out prompts for freestyle raps. Most of her songs are diss tracks full of curse words, scatological humor, and raunchy references to genitals — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they’re not particularly substantive, either. She’s a provocateur whose callous wisecracks target COVID panic, Black Lives Matter, and the Me Too movement. At first, Annie seems a crude caricature of American anti-vaxxers. She smugly makes a scene without caring about the consequences of her actions and gleefully mocks any who are upset by her antics. However, when there’s actual blood on her hands, a frantic tenderness emerges. Annie tries to help or comfort those in grave physical danger, yet these moments of regret are fleeting. Her character arc is more about fleeing, fighting, and foul-mouthed exclamations than evolving empathy or self-awareness.
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Is Annie meant to be a satirical criticism of anti-vaxxers or a charismatic champion to their cause? Other characters suffer because of Annie’s selfish actions, which could be seen as a condemnation. However, Annie is the film’s bombastic center, who battles back no matter what comes her way, which could be viewed as validation of her resilience and thereby her worldview.
Making the movie’s message murkier is its blurring of fact and fiction: Annie Hardy is a real L.A. musician, who uses her real name in the movie and really does host a livestream musical improvisation show. Plus, her social media posts are in line with the incendiary dialogue she spouts in the movie. So, how much of a character is she playing here? Did Savage set out to parody anti-vaxxers or give them a platform? Frankly, I suspect that like his protagonist, he just wants attention and doesn’t care of its praise or ire. Dashcam is far more interested in provoking with Hardy’s shock-jock sensibilities and a smattering of gross scares than it is in telling an engaging story. But politics aside, this film doesn’t offer anything freshly scary.
Host awed audiences by being a low-budget scarefest in lockdown that boasted a captivating ensemble, effective (albeit cliched) scares, and a lean-and-mean runtime of just 57 minutes. Critics noted it borrowed heavily from other haunted house movies, but because it was made swiftly and shrewdly, it was hard to be too bothered by that. Though less rushed, Dashcam borrows heavily from the flood of found footage movies that came since The Blair Witch Project, including hits like [REC], Unfriended, Paranormal Activity, and Troll Hunter. But Savage apparently pulled the wrong lessons from these predecessors. His film lacks a compelling human bond that would ground us in the narrative. He doesn’t offer patient plotting that builds dread, so that scares can come as a rushing release of tension. Devoid of atmosphere, his jump scares are often the “OMG LOOK BEHIND YOU” variety, which quickly grows tedious.
More frustrating, much of the action — including a barrage of chase scenes — are hard to follow, because what’s going on is obscured by the shaky cam aesthetic. When characters are running for their lives while trying to record the thing trying to kill them, it’s often difficult to make out where they are or even what’s going on. Comedy cuts from fearsome fights to moments of Annie alone likewise stifle suspense. How did she escape this brush with death? Don’t worry about it; Dashcam didn’t.
To their credit, Savage and his team figured out an excuse for the camera to keep running (they’re often using the phone as a flashlight), but they have developed no worthwhile mythos behind their movie’s monster. The actual plot is tissue paper thin: Woman gets chased by something creepy. Perhaps Annie’s firebrand persona and outrage-aiming barbs are a cynical distraction, meant to overwhelm us — in elation or irritation — and thereby cover up how little this movie actually has to show or say. Despite Hardy’s undeniable showmanship, Dashcam is no deeper than a Facebook meme. So, at 77 minutes, it feels unforgivably grating.
If this were just a random found footage movie, it would be irksome and disappointing. But Dashcam had real promise. Because of Host, I expected much more from Savage. He’d made a film that was not just fun and frightening, it spoke keenly to the zeitgeist. Host’s story of friends dying over a Zoom call reflected our fear of being virtually connected, but unable to truly reach out and help our loved ones in crisis, so it haunted viewers long after that final jump scare. After Host’s success, Savage and his team got serious support in the form of a three-picture deal with Blumhouse Productions, which has put out a slew of sensational horror films like Paranormal Activity, Get Out, Unfriended, and Happy Death Day. This suggests that for his follow-up, Savage had greater resources: a studio budget, access to a network of talent, and the world’s attention. Yet what he delivered is this repulsive eyesore that relishes in unrelenting juvenile humor, repeated gross out gags involving poop, and a punishing onslaught of crassly provocative yet politically shallow rhetoric.
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