You likely won’t see a more divisive horror film this year than Rob Savage’s Dashcam. If the zeitgeist-grabbing Host, recorded entirely on Zoom in 2020 during the first COVID-19 lockdown, was best watched all alone in the dark at home, Dashcam is the exact opposite: it cries out to be seen on a Friday or Saturday night along with a packed and ready-to-be-scared audience.
A gloriously bonkers thrill ride, Dashcam’s unusual heroine is Annie, a foul-mouthed, MAGA hat-sporting anti-conformist and wind-up merchant. Sick of California’s COVID regulations, she pitches up in the UK to ostensibly visit her friend Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel) but ends up inadvertently smack-bang in the middle of a supernatural yarn involving an elderly woman named Angela (Angela Enahoro).
The lead is played by podcaster, freestyle rapper and Giant Drag frontwoman, Annie Hardy. “I’m [playing] an alt-right version of myself. I’m not as much of a dickhead myself,” she reassures NME during our Zoom chat with her director to discuss their gory frolic. What she is, though, is a whirlwind ball of energy who delivers a tour-de-force performance in bad taste satire. Imagine a bizarro misfit from a Harmony Korine or John Waters movie parachuted into a found-footage horror flick, and you’re half-way there. As viewers will discover, there’s no such thing as crossing the line with Dashcam. Well, there is no line.
The key to understanding Dashcam’s mad charm is through its roots in the popular horror sequels of the 1980s, such as Evil Dead 2 (1987) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988). These films subverted their frightening and intense original predecessors, making them boldly cartoonish and catching the audience by surprise. “I wanted this movie to be in the vein of those ‘80s sequels that take a classy original movie and make a very un-classy, big, loud, kind-of-comedic sequel,” Savage explains. “This is my Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.”
Savage keenly points out the rich heritage and tradition in horror cinema provoking audiences. The director isn’t particularly worried about Dashcam’s critical reception or it being taken the wrong way, either: a movie does not necessarily condone what it is portraying.
“I think if any genre should skirt the boundaries of being offensive, it’s horror,” he offers. “[By] pushing people to uncomfortable places, horror reflects the world as it is. What I want to say when people get offended, it’s like the poster quote from The Last House on the Left: ‘Keep repeating to yourself: it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie’. It’s really meant to be a fun beer-and-pizza movie, where you laugh and gasp, and maybe if it offends you, that’s a good thing.”
“If ‘Dashcam’ offends you, maybe that’s a good thing” – director Rob Savage
The pandemic has been a miserable and traumatic time for so many of us, but it did give Savage the opportunity to establish himself as a maestro of chills and thrills. 2020’s Host, presented as a computer screen horror movie (an aesthetic offshoot of the found-footage subgenre), hit the mark because of its classical approach to telling a ghost story. The film struck a chord at just the right time, catapulting Savage to Hollywood and earning him a deal with Blumhouse Productions (best known for the Paranormal Activity and Purge franchises).
The filmmaker is still amazed today by the word-of-mouth reception Host received: “Host felt really low-pressure. I felt we’d get points for trying, even if the movie wasn’t that great. I thought people might find it a fun distraction during lockdown, but that there might be a bit of snootiness around it, that it was opportunistic and gimmicky – which it was – but the response … people coming together and celebrating this movie, it was really surprising.”
Savage didn’t originally set out to make horror films. Growing up in rural Shropshire, he had his sights set on being the new Andrea Arnold or Lynne Ramsay, and saved up money to make his first feature by working a variety of jobs. “I grew up in the countryside, so the film industry felt a million miles away,” he recalls. “I was so naïve about the path you take to make a movie. You make a short [film] and maybe the BFI will back you, then five or six years down the line you make a feature and, if it’s good, you get to make another. I didn’t know any of that.
“My first movie was Strings, this lo-fi, rigidly-made relationship drama I made when I was 17 or 18 . I learned to make movies on the fly: I was my own editor, my own cinematographer, doing all these different roles. The film is fine – it’s very much a film made by a 17-year-old.”
Strings won Savage a BIFA prize (British Independent Film Awards), which enabled him to secure an agent – and so began his journey up the ladder. Five years later, he realised he should be spending his time pitching movies people wanted to see rather than trying to make, in his own words, “jerk-off arthouse movies”. The shift into horror proved a clever move as Savage has, in the space of two films, positioned himself as an exciting new voice in the genre. “I’ve always loved horror,” he admits. “I’m as much a fan of Lucio Fulci as I am Michelangelo Antonioni.”
“‘Dashcam’ and ‘Host’ are polar opposites” – Savage
Filmed using iPhones, Dashcam mimics a livestream feed (the accompanying text seen on the left side of the frame throughout the film was achieved ingeniously using a computer programme). The root of the project, and the inspiration for all of its ensuing carnage and madness, lies with Hardy, who hosts Band Car on Periscope. The online show usually features her driving around Los Angeles and freestyling at the wheel, while her followers interact with her along the way. Dashcam’s co-writer Jed Shepherd, who produces Hardy’s podcast Empath of Least Resistance, had a simple idea: Band Car as a horror film.
“Jed showed me Band Car and said, ‘This would be a great set-up for a horror movie’,” Savage recalls to NME. “We threw ideas around, and came up with Annie picking up an old woman who she has to ferry from one point to the next. Something resonated, the old woman being both the victim and the antagonist. At this time, the end of 2020, Boris Johnson was saying, ‘Don’t go outside or you’ll kill grandma’. It felt like a really tongue-in-cheek thing to do.”
Shot in Margate, Norfolk and London towards the end of 2020, much of Dashcam was improvised, especially its dialogue. A short, sharp movie that runs at a breathless 76 minutes, Savage and Hardy both speak about how fun the film was to make (Savage reminisces about how some of the best shooting days involved him, Hardy and their producer running around the woods “just making shit up”). With a rough outline guiding them each day, the improv-heavy nature of the production allowed them to revise and rework when needed. Hardy was game to embrace this joyous, guerrilla style of filmmaking, though she was made to shoot numerous takes, which the star jokingly says was a bit much.
“We shot a lot of takes, because Rob makes you do it a lot of times. Me? My first take is usually the best one,” Hardy declares. “The thing is, the first take and second take bear no resemblance to each other, because you never really did the same thing twice,” the director bats back in reply. “The reason I did so many takes was because you did something totally different every time and it would inspire me to do a third take and a fourth take. You got better and better with every take.”
“Maybe people don’t realise ‘Dashcam’ is fake” – Annie Hardy
Hardy had a blast shooting abroad, and also found the time to focus on her own creative output. “British people are my people,” she says. “I always say in America I’m Budweiser, but to you guys I’m an imported beer. I think Budweiser is a nice beer! I thought it was great [shooting in England], except it was freezing cold. I got to see Margate for the first time and stayed over at The Libertines’ place [The Albion Rooms], which is a hotel with a recording studio. It was like an all-inclusive resort: I didn’t have to leave or do anything, and I was recording an album.”
Hardy had done some acting before, but not at this level – understandably, she was a bit apprehensive. “On the first day I was like, ‘Can I act?’” she says, which prompts Savage to interject: “You’re a great actor!” She quips back: “I’ve been acting like a human being all these years.” Hardy was certainly reluctant to play a person who looks like her, shares her name and her career, but who is a bit more out there politically. “I almost backed out,” Hardy explains, “I said [to Savage]: ‘I feel like you’re going to make me look like an asshole’.”
Was she worried about people confusing the Annie of the film with the real-life Annie? “They already have. Everybody has black-and-white thinking these days, and [Dashcam and her character] fall into a grey area. The character’s name is my name, but there’s some aspects and things [in the film] I would never say [in real life]. It’s a movie. But people don’t understand the whole concept of movies any more, they think this is real life. So maybe they don’t realise it’s fake.”
Hardy then adds, however, that she’s really the perfect star for a horror film because, in her view, “my life has felt like a true-life horror film at times”. How so? “I’ve had stalkers telling me they’re going to come to my house and commit murder-suicide. I imagine there’ll be an increase once the movie comes out,” she notes, somewhere between weary acceptance and joshing.
“I’ve had stalkers tell me they’re going to come to my house and commit murder-suicide” – Hardy
So many of today’s horror directors have simply forgotten the art of the fright or believe that it’s a cheap trick, treating it instead with borderline disdain. Savage, though, knows how to deliver the goods. With Host, he created suspense and tension out of thin air by subtly directing the viewer’s eye around the various frames. In Dashcam, on the other hand, he issues jolts and jumps with giddy abandon, and by its closing stages he knows there is no such thing as going over the top. Both styles suit their individual films and showcase the filmmaker’s versatility.
“There’s a rhythm to a scare scene,” Savage explains, addressing his staunch dedication to scaring the audience. “And I know all the tricks and tropes, because I love horror movies and I study them. I take them seriously.”
So, after Host and Dashcam, is he done with the computer screen horror? “I’d go back to [the aesthetic], if there was a good idea,” he says, though it’s clear enough that he likes the idea of these two movies being about a particular – and likely unrepeatable – point in time, adding: “I think these movies are polar opposites and it’s fun to have done Host, which everybody seemed to get on board with, and then Dashcam, which has been a bit more divisive.”
To circle back to the director’s own words on Dashcam‘s potential to offend on political grounds, it’s all meant to be taken as a “raucous movie you watch with a crowd”. Warming to the theme, he continues: “It’s drunken cinema. Host was the movie you watched at home alone under your bedsheets. [Dashcam] is my drunken, rowdy, yell-at-the-screen film.” Do yourself a favour: go see this blood-soaked, mad-as-a-hatter horror. You won’t believe your eyes or your ears.
Dashcam is in cinemas on June 3