Movies

The Horror Movie Whose Monster Is a COVID Denier

She’s also its protagonist.

A woman, seen through the windshield of a car, stands with her back to the camera.
The lesser of Dashcam’s horrors. TIFF

If you’ve ever watched a slasher movie and rooted for the killer, you’re ready for Dashcam, a found-footage horror movie whose COVID-denying protagonist is the scariest thing about it. Produced by much of the same creative team behind last year’s Host, the story of a virtual séance gone wrong that was shot almost entirely over Zoom, Dashcam is similarly constructed around the practicalities of pandemic filmmaking, with much of the movie filmed by the cast members on their own iPhones. The result is a chaotic, sometimes aggravating portrait of chaotic, aggravating times.

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Annie Hardy, a Los Angeles musician best known for her band Giant Drag, plays Annie, an abrasive, MAGA hat-wearing American who flees the U.S. for England in an attempt to escape the strictures of lockdown. Her old bandmate Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel), whom she awakens with a slap to the face after breaking into his house in the middle of the night, is none too happy, however, about the unannounced visit—let alone the chaos the vocal anti-masker wreaks when she tags along on his runs as a food delivery driver.

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The plot swings into motion when Annie makes a delivery run for Stretch and is asked instead to deliver an elderly woman who seems to be the victim, or possibly the vehicle, of a sinister plot. But by then the movie has fairly clearly established that Annie is its true horror, a boundary-pushing narcissist whose worst qualities are supercharged by the fact that she’s constantly performing for an online audience. Dashcam is presented as an episode of Annie’s livestream show Band Car (which is also a real show, starring the real Hardy), in which she improvises foul-mouthed raps while driving around using words provided by her audience. The show’s comments stream, a constant presence in the lower-left corner of the movie’s screen, serves as a kind of shit-starting Greek chorus, egging Annie on as she picks fights with store owners who ask her to wear a mask, and who seem unfazed as the proceedings turn bloody and supernatural. (Director Rob Savage gives Annie internet connection issues in especially tense moments, so the commenters’ constant nattering doesn’t act as a distraction.)

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It’s a cardinal rule of the found-footage horror genre that your protagonist, or at least the person holding the camera, has to be a bit of an asshole, committed to filming in moments when most people would put their devices away. But Annie takes that to the extreme, spewing disinformation about how what she inexplicably refers to as “Covic” is a hoax and generally doing the opposite of anything she’s asked to do. The character is even more uncomfortable when you know that Hardy is, at least to an extent, playing herself: A recent thread on her Twitter feed propagates the conspiracy theory that the COVID vaccine includes a hidden microchip. Needless to say, Hardy was not present for the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, which required everyone in the theater to be fully vaccinated. The movie screens again via the festival’s digital platform on Thursday.

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Hardy’s performance has polarized reaction to the movie, with one review calling her “too edgy and selfish for the audience to root for.” But there’s a kind of charismatic attraction-repulsion to her screen presence, as long as her antics are directed at the right targets. (It helps, of course, that most of them are English.) At one point, she pulls a plastic bag over a demonic adversary’s head and crows “Wear a mask, bitch” with the swagger of an ’80s action hero. (A lot of them had pretty queasy politics, too.) And the movie’s plot—which I’m dancing around a little bit, assuming that some enterprising streaming service will pick up the movie before Halloween—does underline that her agent-of-chaos behavior can have serious repercussions. The last sound you hear in Dashcam is a maskless person’s cough.

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Even at just over an hour, both Dashcam and Hardy come close to overstaying their welcome—and that’s before a lengthy credit sequence in which Hardy, back behind the wheel, devises raps incorporating the crew members’ names about anal sex and pedophilia. But its grating repetitions actually get under your skin, creating something more troubling that a jump scare. Annie may be the worst person on screen, but she’s not the worst character in Dashcam. That would be her audience, the ones sitting at home getting off on her bad behavior and, later, on her endangerment. When she’s in a horrible car accident, Annie’s commenters don’t call for help; they LOL it up or confidently proclaim that she’s just trying to go viral. They’re as empathetically challenged as she is, and they don’t have to suffer any consequences. The movie practically forces you to root against its heroine—Savage told an interviewer, “A lot of people are watching it being like, ‘I hope this bitch fucking dies’”—but it might leave you feeling a little unsettled about that.

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