Creating an interesting protagonist in a horror movie is a difficult thing. Conventional wisdom suggests they should be blandly appealing, and thereby a surrogate for any viewer to insert themselves into the nightmare. More often than not though, they are treated as disposable. Interchangeable faces who eventually become pieces of meat, lambs to the slaughter. Whether by fluke or design, the “heroes” of entire popular movements in the genre—slasher flicks in the ‘80s, torture porn in the 2000s—eventually devolved into figures of ridicule: victims who the audience would root against, sometimes uncomfortably so.
All of which is a long way to note the uniquely diabolical nature of Rob Savage’s Dashcam and its hero Annie (played by Annie Hardy). Following in the footsteps of Savage’s Zoom shocker from last year, Host, Dashcam is a relentless found footage chiller that is more scary for how it reflects our status quo in a post-COVID world than its use of any demons, witches, or whatever else is rattling up there inside Savage’s imagination. Indeed, one could argue the biggest monster of Dashcam is its main character herself.
Vividly played with a total fearlessness by Hardy, who apparently improvised much of Annie’s dialogue and her penchant for sick rhymes with an even sicker lack of political correctness, Annie is a COVID denying, racial stereotyping, anti-masker who’s spent her quarantine cultivating minor internet fame by being an online troll who is game for any laugh. She’s the type of strident personality who’d be run off most college campuses on a rail. She’s also a very difficult character to like and an even harder one to cheer for when creatures in the woods descend on her head. Which makes her self-made predicaments fascinating as a narrative, as well as a potential test for the viewer’s threshold for empathy.
Set and filmed during the tail-end of 2020 lockdowns, Dashcam finds Annie at a moment of extreme boredom. Constantly streaming her daily activities and off-the-cuff vitriol in some nether region of the web, she’s a person who would now say her best friends are fellow trolls and malcontents that egg on her diatribes about rejecting masks and CDC guidelines. Their anonymous and often gleefully offensive banter is visible in a near constant stream of text on the side of the screen for the whole film. We watch Annie’s experiences through their bitter eyes. They delight when she ignores State Department recommendations and flies to the UK in that surreal pre-vaccine era where airports resembled ghost towns; and they’re frothing with blood in the mouth when she reunites with a former band mate from back in the day, Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel), and his mask-wearing, sanitizer-using girlfriend.
At first, Stretch is amused that his riotous old chum has showed up at his flat unannounced, even taking her around London as he makes deliveries as a driver and spits some rhymes for Annie’s fans. But things quickly get too toxic after Annie refuses to wear masks inside of restaurants and leaves a “Make America Great Again” hat out for Stretch’s progressive girlfriend to find. That’s small potatoes though when compared to Annie taking Stretch’s car and also his gig as an on-demand driver. When she picks up one passenger who doesn’t seem well (Angela Enahoro) and agrees to drive her to a strange house in the woods, abstract dangers become a lot more immediate for both Annie and any friends who bother to come looking for her.
Dashcam clearly follows in the footsteps of Host, wherein a group of bored friends spend their quarantine summoning a demon on Zoom. But whereas that horror film used modern technology to tell an old-fashioned haunted house yarn, Savage attempts to tell a distinctly current thriller that could only be made in this exact moment with Dashcam. During a time of extreme polarization and tribalism, a woman vomiting blood in the backseat is almost relieving—here is something we can all agree is screwed up, right?
The irony of Dashcam is the perpetual flood of abusive text and edgelord flippancy on the side of the screen suggests otherwise. It’s clear that Annie’s let her online life drive her toward performative levels of toxicity, but of course that digital space is no help to her when shit gets real. The question then is once she finds herself in a pseudo-Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity situation, complete with running in the forest from unseen spooky forces, will anyone care? And that goes for the audience at home as much as it does for Stretch or any of her online kindred spirits.
This pseudo-ethical dilemma has made Dashcam an already more polarizing film than Host. To be sure, Host is the stronger and more coherent experience, with its events all occurring in one digital space (and a handful of physical places), which also doesn’t need to have the audience suspend so much disbelief about why the characters keep recording. By contrast, Annie and other characters have no reason to keep streaming the events of Dashcam after about the halfway mark of the movie. However, for all its chaotic and eventually impenetrable weirdness that reaches a bonkers crescendo in the third act, I suspect the real reason Dashcam is a more divisive film has everything to do with its inkblot test of a heroine.
Can you have empathy with someone who doesn’t care if she spreads a plague that you (hopefully) are still concerned about right now? And can you root for her to survive a genuinely grueling experience? That might be the most interesting thing about Dashcam’s reception when Blumhouse releases it to a wide audience down the road. Personally, I cheered on some of the side characters in this film, but found my relationship to Annie and her struggles constantly evolving, which in turn led me to question my own more horrific instincts in These Times™.
For Dashcam to invite that kind of interior interrogation, and likely a vast array of reactions—especially when the bifurcated realm of social media discourse gets its hands on this—is a bold choice by bold storytellers. More, please.
Dashcam premiered Sept. 11 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It currently has no release date.