This is one film that I’m actually glad I went into cold. In fact, I ended up watching the wrong movie by accident, Christian Nilsson’s Dashcam, also released in 2021: which is also a product of the Screenlife (computer screen) film subgenre, and a good film, which I write a little bit more about elsewhere. As it was, when I was reviewing the former, I’d come across a summary of a movie that didn’t match the one I initially watched. Luckily, I turned away from it just in time: only knowing about the main character Annie, her political leanings, and that she is a traveling musician that goes to Britain. And that was it.
Then, I found Rob Savage, Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd’s DASHCAM. I’d known about, and looked forward to, it for some time after reviewing their previous film Host two years ago during the height of the Pandemic and Quarantine: created during this new golden age of fear and paranoia. But while Host is a short movie filmed and put together to emulate a Zoom séance gone horrifically wrong and very much an artifact of its time of terror – not unlike a contemporary Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast, or Stephen Volk’s BBC special Ghostwatch – DASHCAM is another creature entirely, albeit related.
DASHCAM’s format, just like Nilsson’s otherwise unrelated film of the same name, and Host, is a piece of Screenlife – or computer screen art – except unlike it being conveyed to the viewer from an actual screen, a messenger program, files shared, or the Zoom platform, it is something being live-streamed to us through a camera and a phone through some kind of undisclosed generic looking platform.
As such, we have two elements at play here: the protagonist, and her own viewers. Please turn your metaphorical wifi signal off as there are going to be Spoilers. You know, you would think that based on these past couple of years DASHCAM – both Savage’s and Nilsson’s films of the same name – would refer to the surveillance equipment police are forced to carry to record their dealings, and racial profiling and hate crimes. But while Nilsson’s movie does deal with a police officer’s footage of his interaction with a former political white appointee, Savage’s movie focuses on a female, live-streaming, right-wing, Trump-loving, anti-vaxxer American song artist. The way Annie Hardy portrays herself in DASHCAM is something that, frankly, might happen if Eric Cartman from South Park had a lovechild with Robot Chicken’s Bitch Pudding: with an entire childhood of learning how to use an indoor voice from the fun figure of Jar Jar Binks. Oh yes. In DASHCOM, she is this obnoxious.
And the thing is, everything that happens in the film is her fault. All of it. She violates Quarantine to travel from America to Britain because she hates the restrictions in her country, breaks into her friend and former bandmate Stretch’s home, proceeds to make his girlfriend Gemma incredibly uncomfortable with crude remarks, insults, and not even wearing a mask. She even licks her hand and slaps the man in what she calls “a Silverlake Handshake” to wake him up after coming into his place unannounced, and creating a major Fight or Flight reaction in him and his partner. And this isn’t even going into disrupting his Uber delivery work by not wearing a mask at one of his pickups and getting into an altercation with the proprietor, and then stealing his car to take some food from a pickup call. But it’s when she takes on a passenger for a large amount of British notes, a confused and seriously ill elderly woman named Angela, that we finally see the results of what happens when Annie ultimately fucks around, and finds out.
It feels as though, as the film – already carried by Annie’s frenetic energy – descends into pure, blurry, almost ridiculous levels of chaos: with death, destruction, sickness, and madness that can only be the result of the unholy force of nature that is the human disaster called Annie Hardy. Oh, and Angela is possessed by an entity referred to in the credits as the Parasite that kills two other people as well.
DASHCAM is a spectacle of special effects, gore, feces, vomit, and grossness with constant action, and so many events happening all at once: making Host look sedate and insidious by comparison even when you consider the destruction that happened in that film. But every spectacle needs spectators. Remember how this is supposed to be a live-streamed situation? Well, if you suspend enough disbelief in considering that Annie still has her head-camera and phone recording her throughout everything going to hell even when she loses her wifi connection – and somehow Stretch has a recording device as well as we follow his perspective for a time as he tries to help Annie clean up the mess she’s picked up – and not just the excrement that Angela’s left in his car – we see on the left-side of the screen legions of users offering advice, demands, swearing, making political statements, sexual come-ons, anti-Vaxx conspiracies, and all of the sundries. These people, voyeuristic, anonymous entities themselves, don’t try to alert the authorities as to what is going on, and only one or a few attempt to figure out where Annie, Stretch, and Angela even are. On the contrary, for the most part these fans are either egging Annie on or condemning her, making slurs at Angela, or doing about the same to Stretch.
Basically, the users watching Annie’s livestream enable her behaviour and want to see how everything unfolds. In a lot of ways, they are the stand-ins for the viewer-audience – for us – with their cries to leave Angela alone, to run, to rescue her, ascending from the lower left hand part of the screen to the ether. We see emojis: of praise, sickness, terror, and love rise from the lower right hand on the screen as a form of positive or negative feedback. And you’d better believe the viewer count on the upper right hand side of the screen increases as things become even more extreme. This isn’t a few friends getting together to talk to a spirit that was a joke gone wrong, but an entire Internet of faceless people contributing to, but ultimately watching and gaining entertainment from the suffering brought about by one person’s thoughtless hubris.
However, as I talk about the structure of this film, it does make me think about how it has been presented: or aesthetic considerations. DASHCAM is supposed to be a livestream. There is a part of me that adores not only Host, but also the Internet phenomena of Kris Straub’s Candle Cove archival discussion thread creepypasta, his Local58 web analog horror work, and even Martin Walls’ The Walton Files YouTube videos. The electronic epistolary format of all of these works, in how they present themselves as other media, is something I truly appreciate. In fact, I think Host was stronger than DASHCAM in a lot of ways because despite being on Shudder, it could easily be seen as a legitimate Zoom conversation.
Just imagine this, as a special viewing. Consider if Blumhouse Productions had allowed DASHCAM to be viewed on a livestreaming platform: and when Annie or Stretch’s wifi connections fail, we could have gotten an entire gap of time where we could have seen the chat explode into speculation. This is not a perfect idea, you understand. If we could only see what gets streamed to us, there are many scenes and beautiful effects that would be missing. At the same time, this also isn’t a perfect movie. Between the suspension of disbelief that Stretch is also streaming for the audience at times, and the blatant supernatural effects of Angela, it can get a bit much. Still, considering the twenty-five minute gap that one of the users in the chat mentions between Annie running away into the woods after Angela kills her mother, and then her in a car soaked in demon ichor without Stretch, as realistic as it would be not to see anything it’s just as well we still got to view the entire length of time between the abandoned amusement park, the house, and the basement. Otherwise it wouldn’t be as entertaining.
As such, despite how you might see Annie, as a viewer you are also one of her spectators to her exhibitionism. Even if she annoys you, infuriates the hell out of your existence, you do get invested in what is going to happen to her: if only because, as an outwardly unlikeable protagonist, you want to see her reap what she’s sowed. But there is genuine comradery between her and Stretch. After they accidentally crash into a car from a wedding, setting the groom on fire and killing the bride instantly due to Angela attacking them, Annie holds the groom’s hand as he dies. She puts her Anti-Liberal T-Shirt over the face of the deceased bride, apologizing to her. Annie gets Stretch to beat-box or rap with her as he is distraught by deaths his car caused, and the terror of dealing with the possessed woman that is Angela. And when Annie slams the arm of Angela’s psychotic mother with the car door after she hunts after them with a shotgun and abuses Stretch, you feel a certain sense of satisfaction as Annie gets revenge on the person that attempted to kill them: as petty, and spiteful, and as human as it is.
It doesn’t take away from the fact that because Annie took on Angela, to drive to that house from the restaurant, that two people lost their lives as she crashed Stretch’s stolen car, or that Stretch ultimately dies due to Angela herself: lasting longer than I actually thought he would, to be honest. And even her killing of the Parasite itself, which is wisely obscured for the most part – though out of the corner of one’s eye resembling a refugee from Pan’s Labyrinth – doesn’t absolve Annie. DASHCAM makes it fairly clear that this iteration of Annie Hardy at least is the true monster of this film: this selfish, raging, being that destroys everything in her path simply because she can’t, or won’t, control her own self-centred impulses. I’d posit that the true horror of DASHCAM is that Annie survives when everyone else around her doesn’t: a reckless force that doesn’t suffer the consequences of her own actions. If that isn’t a metaphor for Anti-Vaxxing, or fascism, I don’t know what is. And even that isn’t entirely accurate, as she does begin to cough at the end of the movie. It’s poetic: that Annie manages to live through several car crashes, drowning, being psychokinetically thrown, death cultists, the death of her best friend, and a demon only to contract COVID-19.
Of course, the figure of Annie can’t have it end like that. No. Annie Hardy actually goes as far as to shunt aside the fourth wall, to interrupt the generic credits to bring herself back to the spotlight. As the names of DASHCAM’s creators stream down the left side of the screen, she proceeds to make a scatological, seemingly improvised rap for each and everyone of them as she drives around to the very end. And you know what: the song is excellent. You truly get an appreciation for Annie Hardy’s skill, and talent as she keeps up the pace and her own sense of rhythm. There is something admirable about her extreme confidence, and passion. It shines through: burning madly, defiant, childlike, playful, and with obvious love.
I read up on Annie Hardy after watching DASHCAM, and I wondered if she was anything like the personality she portrayed. As I did so, I came across an interview with Rob Savage and DASHCAM’s producer Douglas Cox by Perri Nemiroff of Collider where he defends using Annie Hardy as the film protagonist. Savage explains they had seen Hardy’s performances, especially her Band Car show where she improvised music and talked about topics while driving around, and considered finding an actor that could imitate it: even help them adapt it to the found footage model to which they were going for. What Savage and Cox both realized was that not only did her level of creativity mesh well with theirs in a manner reminiscent of the collaborative effort behind Host, her personality shone through. She was, and is, literally the persona they were looking for turned up to an eleven.
And I can see why this choice is controversial. Promoting someone who has Anti-Vaxxer views during a Pandemic, amongst other sympathies, is not good optics. I can see that some people might view this as legitimizing perspectives that could be harmful to vulnerable people. At the same time, the film doesn’t lionize Annie Hardy’s depiction. It doesn’t make her, her views, or her actions to be good things. Even if her persona doesn’t die at the end of the movie, even if she survived her own disasters, this isn’t a good thing. I think this is a case of showing someone, a personality, taken to the nth degree, and how it leads to terrible consequences. At the same time, we also see that there is a legitimate humanity behind all of these instants, and that what we are looking at – and who we are looking at – is real, or as close to that idea as possible. Annie Hardy exists, and the people and forces she represents and these aspects are not celebrated, but acknowledged, and used to tell the mad-cap, brutal story that the creators set out to do. And whatever else, I feel this decision creates art and horror has often gone to this place of transgression: with Cannibal Holocaust’s story, and production, coming to mind for starters.
But while there is a mythology behind this film, even for the monster or Parasite foreshadowed in Stretch and Gemma’s apartment as Rob Savage discusses with Rosie Fletcher of Den of Geek, Annie Hardy makes the soul of this DASHCAM, and I don’t know if it could have been as effective with anyone else. DASHCAM has been an experience. I give it three and a half crabs out of five. I say check it out.