Director Rob Savage is becoming a new master of horror. His films craft fear with a determined resolve; he builds tension, releases it with a light laugh, and pushes in on effective jump scares that — even when expected — are surprisingly rattling. With his first film, Host, Savage created an impressive screen life scare fest that was filmed entirely over Zoom during the great COVID-19 lockdown of 2020. His Blumhouse-produced follow-up, Dashcam, livestreams terror from the shadowy forests of England.
Dashcam follows a caustic online streamer whose anarchic behavior triggers a non-stop nightmare. In the film, a freestyling dashcam dj named Annie (played by real-life musician Annie Hardy) leaves L.A. to seek a pandemic break in London, crashing at the flat of a friend and former bandmate, Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel). Annie’s anti-liberal, vitriol-spewing, MAGA hat wielding attitude rubs Stretch’s girlfriend the wrong way (understandably), and her particular brand of chaos does her more harm than good. She nabs a vehicle and roams the streets of London, and is offered a wad of cash to transport a woman named Angela. She agrees, and thus begins her ordeal.
Annie is a curious character. She’s both charismatic and obnoxious, quick-witted and closed-minded. Hardy’s performance walks this tightrope with a reckless energy; Annie (as a character) is — at times — horrendously unlikable. But there’s something about her that you just can’t stop watching.
Evidently — as explained in a pre-viewing introduction from Savage — the film didn’t have a script (in the strict sense of written dialogue), so Annie’s lines of dialogue were mostly (if not entirely) improvised. While Hardy herself may hold some fringe beliefs, the Annie of Dashcam is an exaggerated version of herself. She rants about COVID being a scam, raves at “feminazis” and the BLM movement, and wreaks havoc on a shop after she’s asked to wear a mask. She’s… kind of terrible.
It’s an interesting and bold choice, putting the film in the hands of a character that’s objectively terrible. It helps that Annie is quite sharp, and a talented musician with an art for explicit on-the-spot lyricism. We catch some glimpses of this through the film, but it’s when Hardy freestyles through the end credits that we really see her in her element. Interestingly enough, Band Car — the show Annie from her vehicle — is actually a real show on Happs with over 14k followers. This, in fact, is how Savage found her. He was drawn in by her unique charisma and spontaneous wit, and thought it would be brilliant to throw a version of this into a horrific scenario.
When it comes to Annie as a character, she is a hyperbolized version of a particular sociopolitical set of beliefs, and she will certainly cause some division in attitudes towards the film. But if there’s any genre that allows divisive characters to take the lead, it’s horror.
Dashcam is probably best seen on a smaller screen, or at least from the back few rows of a large one. The camerawork is often shaky — very shaky — and the third act of the film devolves into some of the most frantic, erratic camerawork I’ve seen. Despite the title, the camera often leaves the dash. Annie runs, crawls, and crashes with camera in hand, and it can be challenging to figure out what exactly is going on.
A major downside is the fact that much of the film is difficult to watch, due to the overly shaky camerawork. If it had stuck with the dashcam idea — a la Spree — it would have been easier to follow, but it also would have lost much of the manic spark that fuels the film’s fire.
One element that I appreciated that I know will frustrate some viewers is that the events are rather… undefined. We don’t really know what’s happening or why. In defense of the puzzling plot, it allows a lot of flexibility and adds a strange level of reality to the events.
If you’re thrust into a terrifying situation, what are the odds that you’re going to stumble upon some audio recording that details and explains all the events you’ve witnessed. Or that you’ll take time to skim through a newly discovered book or article, or question a witness with intimate knowledge of what’s happening. It’s not likely, is what I’m saying. In some ways, it’s this confusion and ambiguity that makes the unreality more real.
There are some excellent moments of over-the-shoulder shots that are truly chilling and excellent in creating an effective scare. Savage does love a good jump scare, but the emphasis is on good here. He knows what he’s doing, and he pulls them off well.
While Host showed an at-home intimacy, Dashcam stretches its legs a bit more by going out into the world and exploring multiple locations, each creepier than the last. With the support of genre giant producer Jason Blum, Savage flexes bigger, bloodier effects that are a far cry from the humble Host-era lockdown do-it-yourself fare. With this being the first of a three-picture deal with Blumhouse, I’m curious to see what he comes up with next as the world opens up a bit more.
Dashcam won’t appeal to everyone. No film does. But Savage’s pedal-to-the-metal attitude towards horror is exciting to watch. As Dashcam picks up speed, it totally flies off the rails and escalates to pure chaotic fear. It’s a more ambitious film with a divisive protagonist and open-ended horror, and it’s bound to turn some heads. The question is, how many heads will turn away.