Above: Annie (Annie Hardy) holds the smartphone through which we see much of the action. Where is the dashcam, you ask. Good question!
Creepy and scary entry in the found-footage genre seems poised to reinvent the genre until it loses track of its best ideas.
Warning: spoilers ahead…
Just when you thought found-footage films were as obsolete as videotape camcorders, along comes Dashcam, a film with a couple of good ideas that seem poised to revive the genre – until those ideas get thrown away and we’re back in overly familiar territory.
The results are not all bad. The film is genuinely creepy, with some unnerving visual flourishes and special effects that create a disturbing sense of the uncanny. However, the attempt to go totally gonzo wears thin, becoming repetitive long before the film finally winds down to its disappointing conclusion.
What does Dashcam have going for it? Two things, really…
The first is explained in its title. Instead of someone running around with a camcorder, this is a movie seen through a dashcam. This solves a recurring problem of the found-footage genre: why do people keep filming instead of dropping the cameras and running for their lives? In this case, the camera is mounted on the car and set to livestream an allegedly popular music show, which consists of Annie (Annie Hardy) inviting her fans to type in words that she will incorporate into the improvised lyrics of her rap song while she drives around town during the 2020 pandemic lockdown.
The second thing in favor of Dashcam is the lead character herself, who is an obnoxious, ignorant MAGA-head, whose every word and action screams, “This being a horror film, you know she’s going to get everything she deserves.” Most movies take the easy way out, either refusing to target a specific political affiliation or merely hinting at it in a way that allows plausible deniability. So hat’s off to Dashcam for not pussyfooting around.
Dashcam gets off to a good start, establishing the character and the situation while reeling the audience in. Annie is aggressively ignorant in a way that qualifies her as a character you love to hate, and the early vibe while she drives around the empty streets of Los Angeles sets an ominous tone long before the overt horror kicks in. When she flies to England and unexpectedly drops in on her boyfriend, Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel), surprising him and his current girlfriend in the middle of the night, Annie’s disruptive behavior has us eagerly awaiting the consequences we expect to follow.
Soon Annie is stealing Stretch’s car and hijacking a food delivery order he was supposed to handle. But the restaurant seems strangely deserted until a distraught woman appears and asks Annie to transport Angela (Angela Enahoro), apparently an old, mentally disable black woman, to a remote address. After that, the film is off and running. Besides defecating in the car, Angela exudes a sinister aura, which soon turns to overt violence. Soon, Stretch tracks Annie down, and the two of them struggle to contain Angela long enough to deliver her to the appointed destination, while being pursued by other characters whose motives are not always clear…
What follows is frequently scary and sometimes funny: Annie’s fans type responses that scroll across the dashcam, ranging from horror to skepticism to boredom at what they see (these tend to drop out during key sequences so as not to distract the movie audience during important action). There are some nice moments when we wait for the seemingly comatose Angela to do something, and the film cleverly milks the anticipation to the point where something as simple as making eye contact registers with an unnerving impact. As icing on the cake, every once in a while, the visual effects kick into show Angela doing something physically impossible (glimpsed in the background while the characters are looking the other way), sending shivers down the audience’s collective spine.
So how does Dashcam go wrong? In two ways, both related to the film’s strengths.
First, the dashcam concept itself is frequently abandoned. Once the characters get out of their cars, we’re back into that same old found-footage territory, which literally involves running through the woods (a la The Blair Witch Project) with completely incomprehensible images blurring across the screen. Even if we can accept would-be internet star Annie filming every second of her evening, there is no good reason for Stretch to pick up her smart phone and record the proceedings when she is off-screen.
The film (inadvertently?) showcases this mistake by including several shots of Annie wearing a smart phone clamp on her cap, which would explain how she manages to keep filming while running for her life – but the whole reason we can see the clamp is because her phone is not in it! It’s being held by Stretch, presumably so we can see close-ups of Annie during important dialogue, but it’s a really dumb reminder of a problem inherent in this type of film.
Dashcam‘s second problem involves Annie or, more precisely, the film’s attitude toward her. Although the filmmakers’ avowed intention was to make a film in which the final girl is an “asshole,” the movie ultimately seems to come down on her side, which results in vaguely racist undertone to the proceedings.
Initially, it makes sense that Angela would be black, because of course someone like Annie would see her as a monster, but the film uses this as an excuse for Annie to physically assault her in a way that is supposed to make the audience cheer. We can cut this some slack this because of the genre – it’s the protagonist battling against the monster – but even this is problematic because the film hints Angela is as much victim as monster.
Even worse, Angela is not the only object of Annie’s violence. When Angela’s mother shows up (it turns out Angela is not nearly as old as she looks), trying to rescue her daughter from whoever or whatever caused her strange condition, Annie breaks her arm, then mock-interviews the stricken woman and inflicts more pain when she doesn’t like the answers.
All of this might work if it were used to build up to Annie’s big comeuppance at the end, but (spoiler alert!) that doesn’t really happen. Instead, we get to hear her rapping the main credits as they role – a truly tedious and repetitive string of foul-mouthed couplets. (What makes this particularly inexplicable is that, beneath the remaining technical credits, actress Annie Hardy also sings a rock song, which she also wrote; both the song and her vocal performance are quite good.)
To its credit, Dashcam seems at least slightly self-aware of its own shortcomings, as expressed through the flow of viewer comments from Annie’s fans (“Boring real life shit!” someone complains during exposition between Annie and Stretch – scenes which make no sense as part of Annie’s livestream music show). But acknowledging problems visible to the audience does not automatically solve those problems.
In the end, we have to admit that Dashcam is frightening and engaging enough to hold attention to the end, but its disappointing conclusion tarnishes what could have been a dark little gem. This may be a case where the filmmakers were trying too hard to go over-the-top. Long before the movie is over, viewers will lose count of the number of times that the main characters are attacked, rammed, crashed – even run over by cars – only to get up so they can be attacked, rammed, crashed, and run over again. They bounced back, apparently unharmed, so many times that, when one or two actually die, the potential impact is long gone: audience reaction is less “Oh no!” than “Oh, finally….”
At least if Annie had gotten what she deserved, the long drive might have been worth it, but no – we’re supposed to be relieved that she survived even though her actions led to the deaths of so many others. Seen through the most charitable light, this could be a satirical commentary about anti-maskers surviving the pandemic, but if that is the point the filmmakers were trying to make, they didn’t make it very well.
Dashcam is frequently unnerving and disturbing, initially offering what looks like a unique take on the found-footage genre, presenting the action as a live stream on the titular device. Unfortunately, it abandons the approach and becomes more run-of-the-mill in its second half, and it fails to deliver a satisfying ending.
Dashcam (2021). Directed by Rob Savage. Written by Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage, Jed Shepherd. 77 mins. Rated R. Cast: Annie Hardy, Amar Chadha-Patel, Angela Enahoro. US Theatrical Release Date: June, 3, 2022 (limited engagements)