Color, 2001, 96 mins. / Directed by John Dahl / Starring Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski / Music by Marco Beltrami / Written by Clay Tarver & J.J. Abrams / Cinematography by Jeffrey Jur

Fox (US R1 NTSC) (MSRP $27.98) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

College guy Lewis (Paul Walker) decides to cash in his plane ticket for a new set of wheels after the chaste object of his affections, Venna (Leelee Sobieski), breaks up with her boyfriend and asks for a ride home from Colorado. Along the way he stops by a prison to pick up his no good brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), and the two pass the time on their road trip by playing pranks on their CB radio. Unfortunately their victim, Rusty Nail, doesn't take too kindly to being led by Lewis' female voice impersonation for a one nighter at a local motel, and soon the boys find themselves on the wrong end of the angry trucker's seemingly endless thirst for revenge.

Tautly paced and thankfully free of the irritating mannerisms which plague most modern "youth" horror films, Joy Ride marks a thankful return to form for director John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Red Rock West) after a temporary break from thrillers with the underperforming Rounders. Originally filmed as Squelch, the film maintains a solid balance of chills and humor without lapsing into either sadism or hipness; even more remarkably, the characters are well drawn and acted with believable flaws and behavior patterns. The hotel room prank sequence is a small masterpiece of mood and creative imagery, with the brilliant flourish of lightning shimmering off a painting of a boat at sea providing an elegant taste of the scares to come. Even the finale, which incorporates all the requisite elements like a relentless madman and a damsel in distress, ratchets up the tension without lapsing into overt gore or unbelievable stretches of credulity. For some reason Joy Ride was largely overlooked in theaters (unlike the similar chilling but ultimately less effective Jeepers Creepers), but it should have no problem finding an appreciative audience on video and, most likely, late night television where it can jolt unsuspecting viewers.

Fox's DVD provides a fascinating model of how to present a film from its initial filming to the final release cut. While it went through several titles, the film was shelved long after completion while Dahl and company tackled the film's troublesome final act. The original half hour finale, which picks up from the well publicized naked diner scene, is a fairly lackluster affair (apart from one nice jolt), focusing too much on brotherly bonding and carelessly lifting a scene from The Hitcher for no good reason. Thankfully this entire story direction was scrapped in favor of a more inventive climax, which also went through no less than four permutations. Included on the DVD are the original finale and the subsequent variations, though ultimately the best resolution wound up in the release prints. Even more information can be found in the supplements, which include three voice tests for Rusty Nail (Eric Roberts, Stephen Shellen, and the final choice, The Silence of the Lambs' Ted Levine), a thankfully discarded bit of extended kissing business between Zahn and Sobieski, and no less than three commentary tracks featuring input from Dahl, writers Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams, Zahn, and Sobieski. All of them offer wildly different observations about the film thanks to their relative perspectives on the production; the first three are the most insightful, but the two actors also do a solid job of bringing their own stories up to bat. The supplements also include a typical puff piece featurette and the theatrical trailer, which includes several fleeting glimpses of the original finale.

The picture quality of Fox's anamorphic transfer admirably replicates the theatrical viewing experience, with colorful washes of red neon bathing several scenes and the numerous night scenes illuminated by tricky headlight beams. It could have been a compression nightmare, but the disc looks just fine. Not surprisingly the 5.1 audio track remains active throughout, with the loud suspense scenes bristling with nifty split surround effects.

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