The 'dark ride' is a venerable staple of fairs, carnivals and theme parks. Sometimes they're innocuous, like Disney's cheery “It's a Small World,” and sometimes they're a bit more sinister, but no matter what mood they try to capture, a theatrically-lit enclosed space full of animatronics is always uncanny.
And doubly so when you consider the 'on rails' aspect of the ride – the attraction removes the element of choice: once you go in, you can only continue to go forward, stopping when the ride pauses, starting again at its whim. Even in dark rides that are relentlessly upbeat and brightly lit and full of singing children and animated flowers, there is a profound loss of control. That makes the dark ride a perfect setting for horror, which is at its most effective when it tells stories about people losing agency over their own lives.
“Dark Ride” sets a teen slasher flick inside an abandoned carnival ride, one with an urban legend backstory (the ride was shuttered years ago after a carnie brutally murdered two girls). The ride is populated with a stock teen cast: the final girl (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), her nice-guy ex, her best friend, the sex-crazed jackass guy and the nerd who incessantly rattles off movie references (Patrick “The Sandlot” Renna). The quintet, plus the hitchhiker they pick up, learn about the spooky ride and take a detour in their Spring Break road trip to investigate. Investigation here should be taken to mean breaking and entering, smoking pot and having sex. As the group gets separated, they get picked off one by one. You know how these things go.
Another one of the original crop of “Eight Films to Die For” from Horrorfest, “Dark Ride” is the most fun of the bunch and one of the best executed, too. Director Craig Singer captures the feel of the setting in his shots, emphasizing the tight angles, confusing layout and the total lack of natural light. The setting is used to maximum effect with some well-executed jump scares and fake-outs.
Even with a good high concept, slashers live and die based on formula. “Dark Ride” knows this and it doesn't try to subvert any conventions or break new ground, it strives to be entertaining and does so by having a guy in a creepy mask (as lame as the killers in the modern slasher tend to look, the cherub mask is surprisingly not awful) kill a bunch of college students. The kills don't have the playful tone and joyous excess of a Glen Morgan-penned film, but “Dark Ride” does have one of the best fellatio-related murders I've seen in a film this polished. Even with its adherence to the 'rules', the film manages to do something genuinely unexpected with the inevitable confrontation between the final girl and the killer.
“Dark Ride” is not a fresh or innovative take on slasher cinema. It's not laced with meta-commentary and its cast isn't aware that they are in a horror movie. It doesn't need to be. Instead, it's an old-school dead teenager movie that is fun to watch and in a world packed with remakes, reboots, PG-13 bowdlerization and gimmicks, that can make it feel fresh. “Dark Ride” is available on DVD (probably pretty cheaply) and it's one worth watching.