Judge Daniel MacDonald was surprised to find this film's title is the same as his doctor's term for a colonoscopy.
The last ride you will ever take!
When will those pesky teens learn that promiscuity = ending up as serial killer bait?
Dark Ride follows the ill considered adventures of a group of young adults who decide to hang out with a vicious, deformed killer in an amusement park attraction. If you believe the hype, it's supposed to be too scary for normal audiences. Is that just another way to say, "It's crap?"
Facts of the Case
A young set of twins (Chelsey and Brittney Coyle) decide to try a "dark ride"—a funhouse traveled through in a roller coaster-type car—at their local amusement park, and end up meeting their unfortunate, and gruesome, demise at the hands of a brutal killer who has taken up residence in the attraction. The place is closed, and according to newspaper reports a host of bodies are found inside.
Ten years later, five college students embark on a spring break road trip, taking more baggage than just their swim suits. Cathy (Jamie-Lynn Sigler, The Sopranos) is still angry with Steve (David Rogers, Sublime) after catching him cheating, while ex-couple Liz and Jim (Jennifer Tisdale, Mr. Deeds and Alex Solowitz, Alpha Dog) are still on bickering terms. Odd-man-out Bill (Patrick Renna, The Sandlot) is just happy to be invited, as now he has an audience for his inane, tired movie trivia. The five becomes six along the way when Jim picks up a hippy hitchhiker in short shorts (Andrea Bogart, Greed).
The group decides to save some of their cash, and have a night to remember, by spending the evening in the same New Jersey dark ride. Little do they know that Jonah (Dave Warden), said killer from the opening scene, has escaped from the mental hospital he's called home for the past decade, and this bird has come home to roost.
Once they realize the mannequins aren't the scariest elements of this ride, they get thinned out trying to find a way out. How many will survive?
In this age of increasingly believable (and increasingly affordable) digital effects, it's nice to see an "analogue" horror movie come along, and that's absolutely what Dark Ride is. Because one of the joys of the horror film is in the creative kills, and the creative ways the craftspeople pull them off. When a character in this film has his head split in half, the gleefully gory results are quite satisfying, and while not all the murders are as spectacular, you can tell that's where most of the effort was focused.
The blood and gore elements are what Dark Ride does best, and that in itself makes this worth a recommendation for horror fans. From the asylum escape to the first killing of a main character, director Craig Singer shows he's not afraid of the oozy red stuff or the entrails.
The other big plus here is the setting. Singer and co-writer Robert Dean Klein have taken a location with inherent scare potential—the dark ride—and turned it up a notch with the inclusion of the psychopathic Jonah. This allows for plenty of fake scares to put the audience on edge before the real fun begins, and Singer seemly has never met a popping-up mannequin he didn't like. Add to that the mysterious, towering, mute killer in a mask—a la Halloween—escaping from the hospital in one of the movie's bloodiest and most violent scenes, and you've got plenty for the characters, and the audience, to be afraid of.
Genre fans Singer and Klein have included all the requisite elements for a successful horror film—this movie would go well paired with a Friday the 13th film. Attractive young cast? Check. Unwise change in plans leading said cast to a waiting killer? Check. Gratuitous nudity? Check. Drug use? Check. Red herrings leading up to the first real kill? Check. Structured in the classical horror movie mold, Dark Ride isn't exactly Adaptation when it comes to originality, but it delivers on its expectation.
The cast is decent, with Sigler the most experienced actor involved, so it's no surprise that she gives the most nuanced and enjoyable performance of the bunch; taking into account the D-grade dialogue she's tasked with delivering, Sigler practically deserves an Academy Award. I look forward to seeing her with more to do in future films. Patrick Renna, although he's easily playing the most annoying character in the film, also shows some acting chops, using a low-key delivery to salvage some dignity from where none is available from the script. But who really grabbed my attention was Dave Warden as Jonah. It's a thankless part, skulking around in the shadows, behind both a mask and make up and acting more as a force of nature than a fully realized character, the role could seemingly have been played by anyone tall. But instead of phoning it in, first-time actor Warden has created a truly intimidating and disturbing individual who I would very much like to see in another film.
This is one of Lionsgate's grammatically-incorrect "8 Films to Die For" in their After Dark Horrorfest, a series of films supposedly too extreme for standard release. While I would dispute that anything in Dark Ride is especially extreme or is even beyond an R rating (in fact, it's got an R rating), its lineage means its outfitted with a meatier DVD release than it otherwise might've had. The picture quality is quite good, almost too good really, with images crisp, clear and bright—more grain would have increased the atmosphere. The audio mix is strong as well, with aggressive use of the surround channels, especially in the opening scene, and solid envelopment throughout. It's no Saving Private Ryan, but the audio is above what I was expecting for this low budget release.
As for special features, we have a chatty commentary with Singer and producer Chris M. Williams. The two are clearly friends, and are surprisingly willing to disagree on what they like and dislike about the picture (although I think both are perhaps a little too satisfied with the end result, Singer declaring it better than Silent Hill and a number of other recent horror films). Also included is a making-of featurette with some candid footage behind the scenes of the ultra low budget shoot, which is reasonably entertaining. But I get the sense that the majority was shot in one night's set visit, limiting its potential scope. Another featurette on the special effects is simply footage of effects being made without comment or discussion: interesting but a little thrown together. Deleted scenes are also here, including a truly horrendous extended version of the opening scene—and I don't mean that in a good way. Featuring lots of footage of Jonah chewing on a screaming twelve year-old's entrails, it probably sounded "extreme" on paper, but in execution is laughably fake and takes itself way too seriously. I was surprised to discover how much the writer and producer praised this version of the scene during the audio commentary, saying it was just too intense and they didn't want to lose the audience—sorry guys, but it's not the intensity that would've been driving people away. Finally, there's a storyboard montage and trailers for this and the other "Films to Die For."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the filmmakers did a lot of things right with Dark Ride, there are also plenty of elements that feel half-baked or poorly executed. The worst offender? Dialogue—good Lord, there's a lot of bad, bad dialogue in this movie. Many exchanges come off as a first-year screenwriting assignment, especially when Bill starts spewing completely random movie trivia for no reason other than to show that the writers know Mickey Rourke was considered for a part in Platoon. Oddly, on the audio commentary track the co-writers pat themselves on the back for how well rounded the characters are, especially Bill, and how well the movie geek material comes off. Go figure.
One scene in particular is egregious not just for its dialogue but for the action itself. Two male orderlies at the mental hospital, obviously thinking they're in Terminator 2 decide to taunt poor "vegetarian" Jonah with a piece of meat. That's right, they slap him in the head with a steak, then try to get him to eat it, predictably leading them to discover he likes his meat a little bit fresher than that. I have difficulty fathoming how no one, in the process of writing and filming the movie, questioned the decision to smack the villain around with a rib eye, but here it is. This scene is so ridiculous that I'll almost certainly be sharing it with my friends, so maybe that was the point.
The lighting, by Vincent Toto, is frustratingly uninspired, with the characters almost always well lit in a classical three-point manner, faces and surroundings well exposed and colorful. While every second movie these days seems to be going for a gritty and desaturated look, this is a bit too far in the other direction for my tastes, and undermines the scare potential. One exception to this criticism is a shot late in the film featuring a terrified Liz crossing a room of the ride as a mannequin rocks rhythmically in and out of the frame—it's a long, unnerving shot injecting some much needed style into an otherwise bland bit of filming.
Overall, horror fans will find much to like in Dark Ride, as well-executed kill scenes tend to trump all else in this genre. While it comes across as a victim of inexperience and budgetary limitations at times, it deserves credit for finding a new setting for an old story. Worth a rental for those with a bloodlust.
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