“Go ahead. The dark ride’s waiting.”
The post-Scream (1996) era was typified by watered-down, self-aware horror and torture movies. Then director Craig Singer brought Dark Ride 2006 to the screen, and horror was transported back to 1980 for 94 gory minutes.
It is impossible not to draw comparisons between Dark Ride and Tobe Hooper’s Funhouse (1981). Both horror movies qualify as slashers, and both are set within carnival fun houses. But whereas I rate Funhouse as a good movie which should have been much better, I consider Dark Ride an overachiever – a movie many horror fans expected to flop but ended up being quite competent.
Dark Ride is the story of several college friends heading on a brief vacation. The classic and Scream-era slasher character tropes are on full display, including the good looking guy (Steve), the old-movie-quoting nerd (Bill), and a couple of hot girls.
A gas station attendant, after attempting to solicit sex, hands Bill an advertisement for a dark ride in Asbury Park, New Jersey, reopening after a long hiatus (I got a chuckle out of this, having driven to Asbury Park for a Tool concert back in the late 1990s). Dark ride is an all-encompassing term used to describe an indoor theme park ride in which riders travel through different scenes in moving vehicles. Typically the term dark ride is used to describe guided funhouse and haunted house rides, but less intimidating attractions such as Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh also qualify. In this case, dark ride refers to the haunted house variety.
You might be wondering why the Asbury Park dark ride was closed for so long. If you guessed “gruesome murder many years ago,” then you win. And if you went for the horror trope double bonus and theorized that the killer was back, you won the whole showcase. Tell them what they won, Johnny.
From the scary, masked killer to the partying, nudity, and gory murders, Dark Ride 2006 seems like a movie that should have been released 25 years earlier. The killer, Jonah, is pretty intimidating despite the strange child’s mask he wears. Apparently Jonah grew up watching the Friday the 13th movies, as he takes pleasure in beheading people having sex.
Dark Ride (2006) vs. The Funhouse
Horror films set in amusement parks and carnivals have been a popular subgenre for decades, capitalizing on the eerie juxtaposition of cheerful settings turned nightmarish. Among the notable films in this subgenre are “Dark Ride” (2006) and Tobe Hooper’s “The Funhouse” (1981). Both films exploit the theme of deadly attractions, but how do they compare? Let’s venture into the dark recesses of these haunted rides.
1. Setting and Atmosphere:
- The Funhouse: Hooper’s film takes place in a traveling carnival, complete with games, rides, and the titular funhouse. The very nature of the setting being transitory adds a layer of uncertainty, as the horror can pop up in any town the carnival visits.
- Dark Ride: Centered around a dark ride attraction in an amusement park, this setting is stationary, emphasizing the long-standing legend of murders that took place there. The dark ride’s animatronics and settings become a maze of terror for the characters.
- The Funhouse: The primary antagonist is a deformed man in a Frankenstein mask who later reveals his grotesque face. He is driven by impulse, rage, and a distorted sense of love or attraction.
- Dark Ride: Jonah, an escaped psychiatric patient, is the central figure of terror. His motivations revolve around his troubled past and the legends surrounding the dark ride.
3. Tone and Style:
- The Funhouse: Being a Tobe Hooper film, it possesses a gritty and raw visual style, reminiscent of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” It strikes a balance between atmospheric tension and full-blown horror.
- Dark Ride: This film leans more towards the slasher subgenre of the 2000s, with modern sensibilities in terms of gore and scares. There’s a notable influence from earlier horror films, but it has the polished look typical of many 2000s horror films.
4. Character Development:
- The Funhouse: Characters are more than mere slasher fodder. They have personalities, relationships, and make decisions that affect the progression of the narrative. Their decisions to stay and explore the funhouse have consequences, emphasizing their agency.
- Dark Ride: While some character development is present, the film leans heavily on genre conventions. The group that ventures into the ride fits the typical archetypes, making some of their fates more predictable.
5. Themes Explored:
- The Funhouse: Beyond the surface-level horror, the film delves into the dangers of curiosity, coming-of-age, and the blurred lines between attraction and revulsion. The “monsters” in the film, both human and deformed, offer commentary on societal judgments and perceptions.
- Dark Ride: The film centers more on revisiting past trauma and the legends urban settings can foster. The lore of the ride itself and the haunting by Jonah adds layers to the otherwise straightforward slasher narrative.
While both “The Funhouse” and “Dark Ride” use amusement attractions as backdrops for horror, they differ considerably in style, tone, and thematic depth. Hooper’s work offers a nuanced look at the carnival world and its hidden horrors, while “Dark Ride” offers a modern slasher approach with heavy nods to horror traditions. Both films, however, tap into the innate fear many have of distorted reflections of joyous places, making them worthy entries in the horror genre.
Dark Ride doesn’t attempt to break new ground. Rather it is a throwback, perhaps even a homage, to the glory-gory days of the early 1980s. The creative team behind Dark Ride are onboard for all the right reasons. It is clear to me that the writers and director are fans of 1980s horror movies, unlike the multitude of filmmakers who jumped on the Scream bandwagon for a quick buck. This movie just feels like an old school horror movie. It isn’t ashamed to go for scares without constantly winking at us, as though we are all in on the same joke. Even the two girls at the beginning of the movie made me wonder if the director was nodding at Kubrick’s The Shining.
While I rank Dark Ride slightly below I Know What You Did Last Summer, I consider this to be one of the best slashers of the post-Scream era. Granted, that isn’t saying much. It lacks the suspense of I Know What You Did Last Summer, probably because Dark Ride didn’t do as good of a job making me care about its characters. I Know What You Did Last Summer is one of the best slashers post-Scream, so maybe the comparison isn’t a fair one. Rest assured Dark Ride is a competent slasher with amazing gore and a fair amount of fun on the side.
Give Dark Ride a chance. It is 100% unabashed horror.
Curious? Then check out Dark Ride 2006 part of the After Dark Horrorfest, on DVD.