For a few months there, you couldn't escape the ads. They were everywhere – on websites, on television, even in the very theaters where the promised marathon was taking place. It was the good old fashioned hard sell – and it worked. There was lots of buzz surrounding the movie macabre event. But when the massively overhyped 8 Films to Die For Horrorfest from AfterDark (a b-movie distributor) finally arrived in November of 2006, it was clear that there was more ballyhoo than bite to this particular octet of titles. Many were merely routine rejects, productions left languishing after their ineffectual terrors were tried out by several of the standard scare factories. The festival ruse was effective, drawing in more than one curious fright fan with the promise of non-stop, "too scary for the mainstream" morbidity. Most were disappointed. Now, as fan favorite The Abandoned gets a legitimate Cineplex roll out, Lionsgate is delivering the other seven films to DVD. Unfortunately, what didn't work on the big screen is even more uninteresting on the small.
Fifteen years previous, a pair of twin girls was murdered in a local boardwalk dark ride. Police searched the joint and discovered a deranged, deformed carnie was responsible for the crimes. Sentenced to life in a mental institution, the city closed down the attraction, burying the memory of the many murdered souls inside. Fast forward to 2006, and a group of fun loving teens are looking forward to a Spring Break overloaded with pot, potent potables and poon. Trying to save money, they decide to take the local lothario's van, each taking turns driving the distance to party central. Along the way they pick up an ex-member of the Devil's rejects, a repugnant little trollop who passes around her favors as freely as the magic mushrooms she's carrying. At a seedy gas station, the adolescents get an idea. In order to bank more beer-marked cash, they can stop and sleep overnight in the deserted dark ride. After all, the history of horror will make the entire experience kind of...neat. Anyway, as they break in to the about to be reopened attraction, there's an escape at the local loony bin. That's right, our maniac is making a beeline back to his old hacking grounds, and our coeds are directly in his line of fire. Who lives? Who dies? WHO CARES!
Dammit if Dark Ride doesn't disappoint. It starts off just like those sensationally stupid slasher epics from decades past, and promises a nice amount of slice and dice splatter once our victims in training teens show up at the title locale to spend the night. There's even a healthy dose of monster movie madness, with the deformed killer at the center of the storyline giving the hideous Hellspawn from Tobe Hooper's underrated Funhouse a run for his mutated money. But then director Craig Singer has to go and whiz the entire enterprise down his cinematically inexperienced leg. Even with a few films to his credit, Singer has yet to learn the lessons of successful dread reckoning. These required rules mandate that cheap shocks not be substituted for legitimate scares, that tone and narrative be expertly balanced with performance and personality, and in the category of creating viable villainy, we have to be given some minor insight into the shattered psyche of our bone carver. Provide these production prerequisites and we fright fans will follow you anywhere – well, almost. But Singer continually saunters off into tangent territory, leaving his main storyline to focus on some failed prank, a dead end relationship between two uninteresting lovers, and a horrid hippy chick lifted director out of Rob Zombie's personal – and motion picture – life. All of these fringe elements turn Dark Ride from a film with potential to a piece of sloppy schlock.
Thanks to a terrific premise (these carnival and boardwalk mainstays have always carried a seedy, sinister stigma) and the reliance on the old school style of terror, Dark Ride should really retro rock and roll. It's got more compelling potential than a hundred half-baked outsider horror films. But it is clear from almost the very beginning that Singer doesn't have the originality to make this filmic foundation pay off. Take, for example, the entire dark ride idea. We never really get to see the entire attraction in action. The opening murders give us a peek, but once we're into the movie proper, it looks like the director just decided to stage scenes at random within the illogical halls of this location. One of the best ways to establish fear is to give us an idea of an individual exit strategy. Without hope, there is very little dismay. Had he taken the time to let the teens get to know the place, perhaps take a trip or two around to give us an idea of what exactly to expect, the action wouldn't feel so scattershot. Similarly, we never quite figure out how the killer can get away with being so stealthy. Seems like he has the ability to turn up whenever he wants to, even defying physics a few times to capture his prey. In addition, there's no real build-up to the deaths. We get the standard "ghost story" scene (complete with its almost nifty little twist) and a boring sex scene. Then "BOOM" – our instant murder machine is on the loose.
Perhaps the biggest sin this film commits, however, is the lack on onscreen grue. While many in the audience will cheer triumphantly as a much hated character finally buys the skank chateau, hers is the only slaughter worth savoring. Indeed, many of the other characters die off screen (WHAT?!?!) with our ability to see what happened restricted to an irritating bloody corpse afterglow. Now before you question the sanity of such a statement, think back for a moment – what is the main purpose behind this kind of motion picture? Subtle social commentary? Clever cautionary tale? Heck no – it's blood and guts – and buckets of both. We want actual, not implied arterial spray. Sure, a hospital orderly gets picked apart, and the hired whore help does lose her head, but where's the clever cleaving ala Jason Voorhees. Even better, where's the darkly comic humor of a Freddy Krueger. Singer's slayer is just a mental patient with a stupid mannequin mask (no, we never REALLY see the hideous deformity that supposedly lies beneath) and his lumbering lameness, complete with the slightest of stutters in his step, renders him a rather ridiculous fear factor. What Dark Ride needed was more Friday the 13th and less of Scream's irony overdrive. There are aspects here that are worth a look, but overall, this is one sideshow attraction that will have you demanding your money back.
Surprisingly, Dark Ride looks very good on this Lionsgate DVD transfer. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image helps remove the movie from its obvious direct to home video variables. The contrasts between light and dark are handled expertly, and the overexcited primary color palette is given a proficient, professional sheen. For a film made up of mostly oddly lit interior scenes, there is an excellent amount of detail and depth offered. Too bad the way this movie looks couldn't translate over into how it plays.
Given both a nicely atmospheric Dolby Digital 5.1 multi-channel mix as well as a standard 2.0 Stereo track, the aural aspects of Dark Ride are equally effective. The dialogue is easily discernible, and the speakers provide a fair amount of background trepidation during the frequent horror sequences. You can just hear the sonic scare gags going off in the background. While the music is a little maddening – another example of alt-rock retardation adding up to very little in the way of tone – the overall sonic situation here is very good indeed.
Lionsgate provides a plethora of added content to this disc, giving the film a creative context that it doesn't quite earn. First up is a collection of deleted scenes that do actually explain some of the missing logical links between disappearing characters and their untimely demise. We are then treated to a montage of Singer's storyboards, and a basic EPK behind the scene featurette. There is also a Making of documentary called Ticket to Ride, and it does reveal a few more of the movie's secrets (unfortunately, the continuity error that exists throughout the film – the lack of track on the ground for the supposed "ride" - is never addressed). Finally, we are privy to a full length audio commentary from Singer and his producer buddy Chris Williams. The duo definitely believes in this project, and feels they've delivered a definitive terror throwback. Their praise can get a bit sticky after a while, but the abundance of insights make the backslapping more than palatable. Toss in those irritating trailers that begin automatically once the disc is inserted into the player and you've got a nice digital presentation.
While it's not the worst movie offered as part of the entire 8 Films to Die For series (its currently a tie between Unrest and the rotten Wicked Little Things) Dark Ride will be a big disappointment for anyone other than the most casual fright fan. It's got too much going for it to completely dismiss, but can't quite figure out how to balance all its benefits into a successful film. Thanks to the interesting added content, and the desire to be a bit compassionate with these obviously low rent titles, a borderline rating of Recommended will be given. Anyone in sync with the slasher genre of the '80s will get an initial kick out this material, and Singer stages enough interesting moments to keep you moving past the underdone bits. But this is far from a finished film. Indeed, it feels piecemeal and off the cuff. Even the supposed twist ending is awkward and anti-climactic. If you wonder why they just don't make them like they used to anymore, Dark Ride will answer that question for you easily. It's not that they don't want to revisit the slice and dice dynamic of the past – there's just no one around who can recapture it properly.
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