How ‘Dark Ride’ Helped the Slasher Survive
Recent releases like Happy Death Day, The Strangers: Prey at Night, and Hell Fest have prompted the horror faithful to wonder if we’re due for another slasher resurgence. Given how resilient the subgenre has been over the years, it wouldn’t be a surprise. Long synonymous with unkillable madmen and plucky final girls—and the occasional final boy—slashers consistently take their licks at the box office and manage to return from the dead, even during eras that were perceived as down years.
Consider the new millennium. The mid-aughts aren’t exactly renowned for their slasher output, as the genre was in a post-Scream malaise that saw some filmmakers exploring new torturous realms forward (Saw, Hostel), others looking in the rearview (House of Wax, Black X-Mas, Halloween), and still others crafting homages that fell somewhere in-between (Hatchet, Behind the Mask, The Hills Run Red).
But look beneath these headliners and you’ll find that the traditional, no-frills slasher was still clinging to life in all its unpretentious glory, notably taking shape in the inaugural After Dark Horrorfest with Dark Ride. It’s a relatively unremarkable offering, one that feels like it’s simply been stitched together by the remnants of its more noteworthy forbearers—which is exactly what makes it remarkable.
Back to the Basics
If the previous decade was spent ripping apart the slasher formula, then Dark Ride is committed to piecing it back together. Writer/director Craig Singer practically employs a checklist in telling the familiar tale of an Asbury Park dark ride that was closed down due to a grisly murder. A prologue set in 1989 (check) makes the audience privy to the gruesome death of twin sisters in the amusement park. Soon the action jumps ahead fifteen years; the story has become the stuff of legend (check), now casually retold as campfire lore.
When a group of debauched college students head out on spring break (check), they take a detour when they learn the attraction is set to reopen. After picking up a hitchhiker (check), they decide to go one step further and spend the night in the ride, where drama (check) and pranks (check) ensue until they learn the legend is still very much alive and is hellbent on resuming his grim reaping.
When a character (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) says her love life “reeks of cliché,” she might as well be referring to Dark Ride itself. There’s very little here that hasn’t already been done before, and it’s easy to see how it would be dismissed as the same old stuff because it very much is. But, in an unexpected twist, that’s what distinguishes it from many of its contemporaries: it doesn’t take notice of any of this, nor does it seek to upend expectations.
It’s not an update or reimagining of a classic title with popular young actors—Sigler would have been the most recognizable thanks to her stint on The Sopranos—and it doesn’t announce itself as a winking throwback full of obvious nods and homages. True, Patrick Renna plays the obligatory movie geek, but he only references highbrow stuff like The Deer Hunter.
Dark Ride is simply an original slasher, or as original as one could be in 2006. This release would have inevitably drawn comparisons to the likes of The Funhouse, April Fool’s Day, and even Halloween thanks to a subplot involving an escaped mental patient returning to the site of his childhood carnage.
Embracing the Traditions
Slashers that evoke such greatness without completely capturing it are nothing new, of course. Dark Ride is an addition to that pantheon of solid slashers that deliver the expected thrills without upsetting the apple cart. While this does sound like old hat, this is one of the unspoken agreements of the genre: sometimes, the formula is exactly what the audience wants, and slashers like this one have been traditionally eager to deliver it.
Numerous titles in this subgenre have been celebrated for decades, but for each film that expands the canon, there are at least three more that were deemed formulaic and disposable. These titles were left for cult fans to champion—until they, too, became canonized with deluxe home video releases. Eventually, die-hards grew tired of renting Halloween for the umpteenth time and turned to the likes of Sorority House Massacre or Offerings, a pair of unabashed rip-offs whose familiarity is part of the charm.
Movies like this weren’t innovative, but they didn’t have to be; this genre’s reputation is synonymous with its prolific output. An absurd number of slashers dominated video store shelves for decades, enticing audiences like fast food meals: sure, it’s not good for you, but it’s also kind of the best. There’s something to be said for a movie like Dark Ride, which does exactly what you want it to do by making mincemeat out of nearly every cast member and doing it with enough panache to leave an impression.
Dark Ride is in that tradition, and, like many of those forgotten slashers that hacked their way to prominence, it also does just enough with its meager premise to warrant mention. While somewhat derivative of The Funhouse, its titular setting is a natural slasher habitat, and Singer takes full advantage of his spooky digs. The prologue captures the ride in its vintage glory—full of delightfully hokey animatronics and chintzy effects—while the bulk of the movie unfolds in the bowels of the semi-dormant attraction.
Now the ride’s candy-colored glow accents the demented carnival atmosphere. Not every movie can be Halloween, but any movie can feel like Halloween with the right amount of neon hues soaking a rickety production design. Even a derivative slasher like Dark Ride. There’s a reason haunts have become a popular setting for slashers in recent years—they’re just damn fun and lend themselves to the type of mayhem audiences crave.
Buoyed By the Body Count
Singer delivers in this respect, too. He recognizes that this cast is disposable and dispenses them with gory vigor. Dark Ride boasts a sizable body count thanks to some gratuitous padding: not only does the group pick up a hitchhiker, but the script tosses in some scumbag orderlies that totally deserve it when the killer, Jonah (Dave Warden), paints the walls red with their intestines. Singer stages some top-notch splatter movie theatrics, relying on gooey practical effects every step of the way as Jonah separates his victims from their various body parts.
The gags rank from legitimately unsettling—one kid is twisted into a macabre marionette, his severed limbs loosely dangling as his face is contorted with a deathly pallor—to downright silly (let’s just say “getting head” takes on an entirely new meaning at one point). The great thing about slasher movies is that this is often all they need: they can stumble in other respects, but as long as the gore satisfies, it often leads to success as it does here.
Granted, there are times when Dark Ride loses its balance between homage and cliche. The characters in the film are irritating and expendable even by slasher standards, with Andrea Bogart’s hitchhiking hippie providing a few highlights with tangents about Phish concerts and other drug-assisted observations. A long stretch is fairly dry as the kids explore the dark ride and carry out an elaborate prank. The entire plot hinges on the convenient fact that Jonah’s escape just happens to coincide with the kids’ trip, and its climactic twist is a bit of a groaner that only enhances the deja vu.
But couldn’t the same be said about a lot of vintage slashers, which similarly painted over its flaws with garish Karo syrup? Dark Ride might not wear its love for this genre on its sleeve like some of its contemporaries, and it’s more of a faithful update as a result. If not for the minor presence of cell phones and Alex Solowitz’s unfortunate frosted tips, Dark Ride could have just as easily taken place in 1986 or 1996.
I know it sounds like I’m going to bat for a fairly mundane movie that achieves what countless other slashers have, often with more revitalization. It’s true: Dark Ride doesn’t reinvent the wheel as a sturdy slasher with appealing production values. But, ironically, that makes it something of a rarity during this era. Where so much of the output from this period is eager to flash its credentials by winking at the audience or polishing old stories with a studio sheen, this one just sets itself to being a gore-soaked thrill ride without pretense.
There should always be room at the table for slashers like this, and I hope to never be too good for a movie where a psycho in a baby mask splits someone’s head in two. If we are in the midst of a slasher renaissance, I hope filmmakers will keep this in mind, too: horror audiences—and especially slasher audiences—are quite forgiving as long as the blood flows at a reasonable (and practical) pace. We don’t always need the artisanal option; sometimes, the Quarter Pounder is just what we want.