Usually I'm pretty hard on films that borrow heavily from other sources, especially when the premise is almost identical to the work that inspired them. It's no secret that the 2006 After Dark Horrorfest selection Dark Ride bears more than a striking resemblance to Tobe Hooper's 1981 deformed slasher opus The Funhouse. According to the gilded rulebook I keep under my bed, that's a huge strike against any filmmaker, regardless of genre. After all, original ideas aren't that hard to come by, contrary to what countless struggling writers may tell you. All it takes is an active imagination and some talent.
Director Craig Singer, on the other hand, has crafted a fine example of how to take a familiar concept — in this case, a gaggle of friends hanging out in a carnival after hours — and do something a little different with it. Dark Ride is certainly not the greatest slasher flick you'll ever encounter, but it does what it does with a fair amount of style, something that simply cannot be said for most of the films which fall into that category.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: A group of friends decide it would be super wicked awesome to spend the night inside a small town carnival, one that has a history of violent crime. After sneaking into the park's "dark ride," this group of oh-so-witty individuals immediately get wasted and promptly screw around. These devilishly mischievous acts are followed by some mean-spirited horseplay, a few hurt feelings, and the discovery of a mutilated cadaver. Insert pre-recorded scream here.
Soon everyone is running around wildly, screaming like frightened sheep as they desperately try to find a way out of this living nightmare they've suddenly found themselves within. To make things more interesting, there's a plot twist so ingenious that you'll figure it out halfway through the film. Who will live? Who will die? And what in the hell is that fat kid from The Sandlot doing in a non-Disney movie?
See what I mean? Familiar concept. Minus the fat kid, of course. This kind of picture has been done a thousand times before, though the names, places, and dates may have been jostled around a bit to keep you from noticing the similarities. Dark Ride is certainly guilty of being painfully unoriginal; I doubt even Singer would disagree with that statement. The trick is to take something we've seen before and dress it up in brand new clothes from the mall, a kind of cinematic make-over for stale ideas. If you can accomplish this task correctly, chances are people like me won't crucify you for being a lazy writer. No offense, of course.
The coolest thing about this particular entry in the saturated slasher subgenre is definitely the atmosphere. Singer and crew have constructed a very spooky ride for these characters to hang out in. Since the camera never lingers on one set piece for too long, it makes you wonder if those bloody corpses and severed limbs are merely props or leftovers from the resident psycho's late night snack. It also helps matters considerably that most of the movie is drenched in shadow, sprinkled lightly with what I like to call "Argento Lighting." Very effective, very creepy stuff.
The bad news, I'm afraid, is that Singer never uses his surroundings wisely. The movie takes at least an hour to get rolling, leaving you with lots of pointless dialogue delivered by people you honestly couldn't care less about. Instead of peppering the kills throughout the movie, they're lumped towards the tail end of the feature, one right after the other. Slashers, I believe, benefit greatly from well-balanced pacing. In other words, you have to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. Kenny Rogers is a very smart, very rich man.
On the performance front, everyone involved does a decent job in front of the camera. Patrick Renna — the guy I unfairly dubbed "the fat kid from The Sandlot" just a few minutes ago — is probably the best of the bunch, followed closely by Alex Solowitz (Never Been Kissed) and Jamie-Lynn Sigler (The Sopranos). The rest, I'm afraid, are as abrasive as a Velcro enema. You can't wait for them to die, and you'll breathe easier when they do. Too bad that doesn't happen till the end. Damn you, Singer!
Last but not least is the film's nifty gore quotient. Fans of the squishy stuff will be tickled pink with the amount of nastiness on display. This low-budget blood buffet features such exotic delicacies as juicy intestines, delectable severed heads, mouth-watering impalements, and a few other tasty surprises. Be sure to stay focused during the boring parts if you find yourself starting to drift. Chances are you won't want to miss what you paid good money to see.
You know, sometimes it's nice to sit back and relax with something as hollow and idiotic as Dark Ride. Sometimes you just need to watch a deformed serial killer slash his way through a group of clueless college kids for 90 minutes or so. Because the movie is so apologetically stupid, it might be beneficial to exclude your brain from your own private viewing of Craig Singer's mildly entertaining horror flick. If you can ignore the annoyingly familiar premise and suffer through some lame characterization and needless exposition, you'll discover a genre picture that delivers basic retail thrills in a sticky red sauce. If that's your thing, buy a ticket and take the damn ride, already.
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