Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.
So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.
Dir. John Dahl
20th Century Fox
“Storm’s coming. I like the rain. Keeps everyone inside. Washes everything clean.”
Though I’m a lover of all things horror in general, there are very specific sub-genres that I will gravitate toward more than others. Firstly is anything paranormal. If you’ve got ghosts in your film, made by people who seem to have given a damn, I’m there. Secondly is anything killer shark…or at least it was until the mid-2000s, until shark movies started being terrible on purpose. (That’s cheating; plus that approach never works.) Thirdly is horror on the open road. I’ve been fascinated by this kind of story for years. For someone like myself who is so completely embittered by having to contend with every manner of completely incompetent driver, I actually love being out on the road late at night. Years back, when immediate family temporarily lived a few states away and I would go to visit, I always made that drive late at night. For obvious reasons, traffic was always much lighter, and therefore caused me less strife, but there was another reason: Being out on the road so late into the night made it feel like a different world entirely. Something about the night sky and late hour made it feel as if you weren’t so much driving across state lines as you were sneaking across under the cover of darkness. Your only company was semi-trailer trucks and the few civilian sedans. I love stories that take place in this environment. Late at night in a foreign environment without access to immediate help, anything can happen. With your only line of defense being your car (if you’re lucky), you’ve got only your wits and your talents behind the wheel to depend on.
I remember going to see Joy Ride in theaters for the wrong reason – because, on paper, it sounded like an enjoyable piece of shit at which I could laugh and belittle, which is something I often did back when I had disposable income. I had seen the trailers for the film, all punctuated with a close-up on a CB radio as Ted Levine’s voice bellowed “CAAANDY CAAANE!” But a funny thing happened about ten or so minutes into the film: I was enjoying it quite a bit, and not in any kind of ironic way. It was just…good. Great, even.
Lewis (Paul Walker) has had a crush on his childhood friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski) since forever. Though both have torn off to different colleges, and separated by half-a-dozen states, the two have been quite consistent at keeping in touch, mostly with late-night phone calls. One particular night, at the end of the semester, Venna confesses she’s recently broken up with her current boyfriend and verbally wishes that Lewis owned a car, so he could stop off in Boulder, Colorado, and pick her up, so they could make the trip home to New Jersey together. Lewis looks down at his airplane ticket and lies to her, saying he does, indeed, have a car, and he’d be happy to stop off on his way home cross-country. After procuring a car, Lewis begins his drive…until hearing from his mother, who informs him that his older brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), has been arrested in Salt Lake City for drunk-and-disorderly. Lewis, being the dutiful younger brother, amends his plans to stop by and bail him out. Since Fuller hasn’t been home in years, nor even really keeps in touch with their parents, Lewis assumes he’ll be dropping off Fuller somewhere between Salt Lake and Boulder, but Fuller opts to stay with Lewis for the entire trip, as it would seem he, too, wants to go home to Jersey.
Along the way, the brothers stop off to have the car serviced, and while doing so, Fuller takes it upon himself to have a CB radio installed in the car. For a paltry $40, Fuller figures they can use the radio to keep in touch with truck-drivers to ask them for any potential cop sightings, thus making the trip go by just a little bit faster. While doing so, one particular truck-driver with the handle of Rusty Nail catches their attention; the brothers create alternate ego CB handles, Fuller being a southern guy named “Black Sheep” and Lewis putting on a female voice for “Candy Cane.” The two play-act with each other, hoping to bait Rusty Nail, which they soon do, and they talk him into “meeting” Candy Cane at a roadside motel where the brothers are really staying, which they do for nothing more than a laugh and some spiteful revenge against a rude guest also staying at the same motel. Rusty Nail does eventually show, as promised, and a violent altercation leaves the rude motel guest hanging on for deal life. Lewis feels genuinely bad, but Fuller refuses to recognize his culpability in bringing these two random strangers together and it ending badly.
In one of those great “oh shit” movie moments, Rusty Nail soon inserts himself directly into the brothers’ lives, letting them know that he’s figured out he was made to be the butt of their joke, and he isn’t going to let them get off so easily. From one cheap motel to the next, and no matter what road the brothers take, Rusty Nail seems to be both one step ahead while also being directly behind them.
To quote one eccentric character in the film, what eventually unfolds isn’t “comely.”
Joy Ride is perhaps the best addition to the open road sub-genre that likely began as far back as Steven Spielberg’s TV movie Duel. It’s thrilling when it wants to be, and fun/funny when it wants to break the tension. It drifts back and forth from horror to humor as effortlessly as I’ve ever seen, and that’s a tough act to pull off. Duel’s mood was soaked in paranoia (and slightly hampered by the film’s unlikeable lead), and Road Games was a gonzo Australian-outback with an absurd noir approach, but the superior-to-both Joy Ride endeavors to be just a flat-out conventional thrill ride, one that doesn’t have much to say or a moral to imbue, other than, “Just be nice to strangers, you idiot.” (I believe Ghandi once said that.) (No, really. He did.)
Paul Walker’s recent passing was one of the main reasons I wanted to highlight Joy Ride, which certainly belongs in the upper echelons of the late actor’s filmography. Though he’ll forever be linked to The Fast and The Furious franchise, which represents neither his best output nor his finest acting, it would seem films like this and 2006’s insane Running Scared often fall by the wayside in the actor’s obituaries. Walker, a handsome guy and by all accounts a likeable and charitable person, seems to be the most comfortable here that he’s ever been as an actor. In the course of Joy Ride’s running time, Walker needs to play normal, smitten, loyal, fun-loving, fearful, fearless, heroic, weak, and most importantly, sympathetic – at all times. He offers a lot of range for something as ultimately high-concept and sadly dismissed, but the film is all the better for having him aboard. One of my favorite moments involving Walker is when he uses his faux female voice to lure Rusty Nail to the motel where the brothers are staying. At Fuller’s urging, Lewis agrees to take part in this prank and does it with a sly smile, but when he hangs up the radio at the end of the conversation, the smile drips off his face with realization and he says, with tremendous guilt, “That was really mean.” It’s moments like this that make you realize fictional on-screen characters can be just as flawed as the rest of us – that we succumb to pressure and we do and say dumb things, only to know moments later just how dumb those things were.
Playing the foil to Walker’s soulful Lewis is Steve Zahn as Fuller, who had probably the best time on set, and certainly had all the best lines. Zahn manages to do something incredibly difficult, and he does it with little effort: the character of Fuller, in actuality, has no real redeeming value. He’s a shiftless and selfish troublemaker who is not only directly to blame for inviting the wrath of Rusty Nail into their lives, and who not only refuses to accept that blame, but he even has the audacity to try and get his groove on with a very drunken Venna, a girl with whom Lewis is clearly in love. This isn’t just one friend trying to cuckold another – it’s his brother, and that’s pretty fucked up. But it’s Zahn’s extreme likability and affability that makes us not only put up with him, or root for him, but actually miss him when he’s not on screen. I’ve known real-life Fullers whom I once called my friends, but whom I eventually came to loath; Zahn’s version of Fuller makes me wish he were my best friend.
Walker and Zahn’s on-screen chemistry is fantastic. From the minute they are reunited when Lewis goes to bail out his brother, they genuinely feel like real-life family. And even though you, the audience, know how bad of an idea it is to begin fucking with Rusty Nail on that damn CB radio, the brothers have such a fun time doing it that it does become legitimately funny. We’ve all done what they are doing, whether it be via CB radio, phone, chat room, or whatever other devices we use to engage in temporary tomfoolery. We remember the rush we got, regardless of whether or not our conscience caught up with us afterward. At the end of their prank, when Lewis quotes one of Rusty Nail’s responses – “I’d take off your bra.” – and laughs about it, the humor is palpable. The comedy aspect of it is infectious because the circumstances feel real.
Leelee Sobieski is your typical and not-so-typical damsel in distress. She becomes the realized version of Rusty Nail’s infatuations – the Candy Cane whom the brothers tried to convince him did not exist. What’s interesting about her character is that she had nothing to do with the brothers’ poor choice in attempting to victimize Rusty Nail over CB, but yet she’s here heaving to deal with the situation they have created for her. Naturally she shows fear where it’s appropriate, and exhibits the kind of strength we’ve come to expect from our “final girl,” but she also manages to show empathy toward their stalker. As a tear rolls slowly down her cheek, she tells him over the radio that she doesn't think people realize their actions have consequences. It feels less like she’s trying to butter him up and more like she’s trying to reason with him on a human level.
It doesn't work:
Ted Levine! This guy…If you’d seen only one film previous featuring Ted Levine in some capacity, you would instantly recognize him the first time his voice blares through that radio. Though most well-known for his demented turn as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, Levine has consistently contributed reliable character actor work for years since. Confined here only to voice-work, Levine does not let that confinement affect his performance. The menace comes easily enough for him, but before he goes totally off his rocker, a line here and there aids the audience’s transition from understanding the psycho trucker’s action while certainly not condoning them. “Now they know how it feels to be the butt-end of the joke...Now they know how it feels to be the fucking punch line.”
Genre-fan favorite Jim Beaver shows up in a fun cameo as Sheriff Ritter, a profanity-spewing no-nonsense local lawman who offers the most entertaining diatribe in the entire film. Not only is he providing a natural reaction to what has now become a major problem due to a stupid prank, but in a way he’s also personifying the audience’s grasp on the conflict up to that point. Though he’s showing it with anger, both he and the audience are expressing the same kind of frustration: simply put, they could have so easily not picked up that radio, and not taunted that truck driver, and now that they have, everything is now coming apart. The hell they have created for themselves has derived from the easiest of choices earlier presented to them – and they both chose to be stupid.
John Dahl, simply put, directs the hell out of this thing. He manages to wrangle every piece of fear and suspense out of the film’s on-screen happenings, and he does it with something as simple as a spray-painted road-sign, or a slow zoom in on a shitty motel painting. My favorite sequence has the brothers seeing the finished product of their arranged meeting between the motel guest and Rusty Nail—the man lies comatose in a hospital bed, wrapped from head to toe in bandages, and his bottom jaw torn clean off. Shot in slow motion, and lingering on the brother’s horrified faces for several moments before we see what they are seeing, it’s affecting not only for the shock, but because they now can see what their fun little prank has manifested into. Fuller, who up to that point refused to admit any wrongdoing, looks far more horrified than his brother.
Joy Ride’s gimmick recalls Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and so it’s only natural for Dahl to include a fine collection of Hitchcock-like shots and sequences. The fake-scare scene, in which Lewis and Fuller are terrified by perhaps the friendliest ice-truck driver in existence, drips with Hitchcock humor – not to mention the scene composition itself. (See the shot where the ice truck pulls up directly behind their car, headlights blaring – all captured from inside the back windshield.) But there’s another homage snuck into the film’s final act that you might not have expected, and though it honors one very famous Spielberg film, funnily enough it’s not the aforementioned one about a man being terrorized by an anonymous truck driver, but rather, the one about the killer shark. Our kids in peril soon find themselves stranded in a cornfield, surrounded by a sea of high stalks, as Rusty Nail pursues them in his truck. As he barrels toward them, only the top of his truck can be seen poking out through the tops of the cornstalks, like the fin of a shark, and the kids blindly run in every direction, desperate to get away from him. You can’t get further away from the waters of Amity Island, New England, than a cornfield in Middle America, but yet director Dahl still manages to successfully homage Jaws all the same.
Dahl and his screenwriters, Clay Tarver and soon-to-be Hollywood powerhouse J.J. Abrams, take a huge gamble during the second act. After the brothers’ first face-to-face (kind of) confrontation with Rusty Nail, it ends with him laughing and saying, “Hey, I was just messing with you, man,” and then disappears into the night. We, the audience, know there’s still half the film to go, and we know the brothers' paths are going to cross with that of Rusty Nail again, but our filmmakers do something nearly unheard of: For much of the second act, there is no Rusty Nail. No voice, no eerie threats, not even temporary cuts back to his character driving or an establishing shot of his truck. Nothing to refresh your memory that he is still out there and still pissed off. Because of this, the film allows us to calm back down and get acquainted with Sobieski’s character, who has finally joined the plot. The humor makes a welcome return, and the filmmakers allow Lewis and Venna time to grow closer and establish a relationship – one on which the film is depending to base the effectiveness of the entire last act. You simply do not see this kind of approach anymore. Once a horror film has begun the horror, it does not turn off for most of an entire act. But Dahl et al. pull it off, and with great reward, as the entire last act does not let up once it begins.
Based on the moderate success of Joy Ride at the box office, and its two direct-to-video sequels (one already out/one coming soon), it would seem that Joy Ride did indeed find an audience upon its release. It may not be as unheralded as the other films featured here in Unsung Horrors, but it’s certainly no less worthy for the attention and praise it deserves.