There’s cringe humor, like when Larry David bows to the Japanese delivery guy; and then there’s cringe horror, like when a blood-spewing parasitic twin bursts out the back of a skull (spoiler alert for a recent unnamed release). In “Dashcam,” a wildly unhinged cinematic invention playing the Toronto International Film Festival, Blumhouse and “Host” director Rob Savage have pioneered a rollicking chimera of the two — the cringe horror comedy. If the sight of a mouth-stapled zombie shitting herself doesn’t make you cover your eyes in disgust, perhaps a Covid-denying, MAGA-loving, rapping white girl will.
With the uncomfortably charismatic Annie Harding (playing a heightened version of herself), “Dashcam” has not only created a character far more terrifying than any mythical monster, but has totally rewritten the rules for the ever elusive “unlikable woman.” In her raspy-voiced soft lisp, the petite blonde terror livestreams from her car, under the guise of a project she has dubbed “Bandcar: The Internet’s Number 1 Live Improvised Music Show Broadcast from a Moving Vehicle.” (The LA-based musician’s actual show.)
Like the obvious train wreck that she is, Annie is impossible to look away from. More foul-mouthed than the most trolling of white male comedians (with a soft spot for anal references) she spews her controversial views as freely as her airborne particles. As we follow her on a flight from Los Angeles to London to escape lockdown and surprise an old bandmate, she refuses to wear masks and frequently prattles on in her slant rhymes about hive-minded sheeple being controlled by the Covid conspiracy.
The framing of the film sits either with Annie’s point of view, via an iPhone attached to her head, or from the one on her dashboard, placing the viewer in her livestream audience. (The entire film was shot on iPhone.) Throughout “Dashcam,” we see a rolling display of comments from Annie’s small but fervent following, whose shining observations range from “My job forcing vax” to “Consent isn’t a simple thing.” Rather than feel distracting, it’s an effective added texture. When Annie’s shaky camera work and obnoxious behavior become tiring, one can always check out the lower left hand side of the screen for an amusing reprieve.
After descending on her poor friend Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel), his unamused liberal girlfriend (Jemma Moore) kicks Annie out after finding her MAGA hat. She steals their car and takes one of Stretch’s Doordash assignments, only to meet a skittish Irish woman who pays her to take a sick elderly woman to an address in the countryside. Wearing a mask and non-verbal, Angela (Angela Enahoro) immediately becomes more trouble than she’s worth, soiling herself in the backseat as Annie spews her own bile at her. Once the wheels fully come off, however, Angela eventually reveals herself as the worst decision Annie has ever made — and that’s saying something.
Once he comes looking for his car, Stretch becomes embroiled in Annie’s chaos, exhaustedly remarking to the livestream: “This is what happens when you let Annie Harding into your life.” But as soon as they begin running from the blood-spewing demon Angela turns out to be, the band is back together, and Stretch and Annie’s fates are linked. The minutiae of the film’s plot turn out to be inconsequential; the film never explains why Angela has an Ariana Grande tattoo or how she came to be a blood-spewing demon. Such details are secondary to the creepy carnival fun house setting or the tendony claw that bursts from Angela’s mouth to slash throats in a gushing instant.
What’s more important here are the ways Savage, with co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, use the specter of the pandemic as its own terrifying funhouse mirror. Through Annie, we see our real world fears personified; the Covid-denying, internet-trolling, conspiracy theorist who thinks only of herself. Angela is the virus Annie cannot accept, even as she’s covered in its shit, piss, and blood.
The parallels are obvious, but “Dashcam” thankfully never tries to say anything too meaningful with the crazy fucked up allegory it’s concocted. Humor and tone are paramount, and the building blocks of the smart premise remain the backing track to Annie’s insane musical. The few moments of direct winking are merely funny, like when Annie covers Angela’s head with a plastic bag and says, “Wear your mask, bitch.”
Like many of the best horror films, “Dashcam” was shot on a fairly low budget, though the Blumhouse deal allowed for some exciting locations, such as a sturdy brick country manor housing an antique car garage. As they did with 2020’s Shudder hit “Host,” another pandemic inspiration, Savage, Hurley, and Shepherd have once again proven a canny ability to tap into the darkest corners of the zeitgeist while producing genuinely entertaining and chilling horror. Equal parts confounding, challenging, and insanely fun, “Dashcam” is horror at its most inventive.
“Dashcam” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.