When I was but a wee bonny lass, the highlight of every summer in southeastern Connecticut was the glorious two weeks when Coleman Brothers Carnival rolled into town. I'd go with my parents and ride the rides, eat fried dough, and play the midway games, where I'd either get ripped off completely and win nothing, or I'd go home with a goldfish in a bag or maybe a giant stuffed knock-off toy, something poorly-made that kinda looked like Snoopy, but sort of deformed. When I was old enough I'd go with my friends and pretty much do the same things, except my prize of choice was now a Duran Duran mirror or a Madonna poster.
Coleman Brothers used to do it up right, appearing magically in an empty field overnight. They had a small sideshow for a while, complete with a few "freaks" and the ubiquitous mystery-baby-in-a-jar. They had the usual assortment of carnival rides, rides that were scary partially because they were simply thrilling and partially because you were sure they'd come flying apart and you'd fling off over the parking lot screaming towards certain doom, your last earthly thought being something like "Build a statue in my honor, southeastern Connecticut! Damn you, Round-Uuuuuppppppppp!" before landing with a huge splat.
My two favorite rides were The Zipper (the one where you sat in a cage that rotated freely while the entire ride rotated as well; it's also known as the ride that Cindy Y. barfed on one year), and, ahem...surprisingly enough, The Haunted House. Getting in the little car and banging through the doors into complete darkness was always a thrill; air vents would psssht into my face, a loud buzzer would go off just as a day-glo Frankenstein would reach out of the black, witches would cackle, the smoke machine would be on in full force, and string would dangle from the ceiling and get in my hair. The Haunted House was cheesy, loud, and completely terrifying; banging through the doors at the end of the ride, back to safety, somehow always felt like an achievement.
Most horror fans have seen Tobe Hooper's 1981 ode to carnival terror The Funhouse, a movie that begs the question "What's scarier, having an albino cleft-faced monster chasing you with murderous intent, or watching Sylvia Miles have sex?" It'd been about 25 years since anyone revisited the notion of setting a slasher flick in a carnival- specifically, in a carnival attraction- but last year's After Dark Horrorfest brought us Craig Singer's Dark Ride, a film that centers around the very kind of Haunted House ride I loved so much. Who knew the official name for these attractions is "Dark Ride"? And could that whole "It's been about 25 years" business make me feel any fucking older?
As the film opens it's 1989 and two young girls I quickly dubbed The Chewbacca Twins hop into the car that will bang through the doors of the Haunted House ride for some chills and thrills. I wasn't completely sure if the park was open or abandoned, for despite the fact that the park was located in Asbury Park, New Jersey- not exactly the middle of nowhere- The Chewbacca Twins were the only people walking around. No matter! The Twins are soon enough having air psssht in their faces and listening to mad cackling as they tool along the track. Chewbacca #1 is a bitch and teases her sister for being a big baby, though Chewbacca #2 isn't really acting like a baby. No matter! The car stops and suddenly someone grabs Chewbacca #1, hauling her out of her seat. Chewbacca #2 screams and continues along the ride. Within moments, the car stops again and we see Chewbacca #1 dead and splayed out in one of the Dark Ride's gruesome scenarios. How did the killer dispatch Chewbacca #1, get so far ahead of the car, and set-up a bloody diorama in 10 seconds? No matter! These things happen in slasher films.
It seems that after the murders the park was closed and the killer was committed to an insane asylum. I wonder what will happen next?
I don't mean that last bit to sound bitter or cynical, honestly. I was pretty excited about Dark Ride, as it was looking to be a straight-up, tried-and-true formulaic slasher flick set in a scary place- that's something not seen too often in horror nowadays. To me, slasher flicks are like comfy, pilly old sweaters- not necessarily the most flattering thing one can wear, but cozy just the same.
Keeping in line with tradition, Dark Ride's cast of characters are familiar to even the least savvy horror film fan: a group of college students comprising the usual assortment of stereotypes: the slut, the Final Girl, the movie geek/nerd, the stoner, the Final Girl's bland boyfriend. I must say, however, that our introduction to The Slut contained a visual far more shocking than the pre-credit Diorama of Death. Witness:
What, am I in Europe? Umm...it's called Lady Bic.
At any rate, the friends head out for the obligatory vague weekend getaway and stop at the obligatory creepy gas station. The Film Geek (Patrick Renna of The Sandlot) finds a flyer in the bathroom announcing the grand re-opening of the carnival's Dark Ride; why should they all spend the night wherever they were going to spend the night when they can break into the Dark Ride and spend the night there?
Along the way the crazy kids pick up a hitchiker, the Poor Man's Sheri Moon-Zombie to even up the boy-girl ratio. She talks about the band Phish, busts out the 'shrooms, and decides to tagalong on the overnight carnival stay.
Later on it's revealed that The Chewbacca Twins were, in fact, the Film Geek's cousins. He planted the flyer to ensure they'd go to the Dark Ride, for he wanted to visit the attraction to get some closure. He tells his friends that the killer's name was Jonah, and he was a deformed weirdo who lived in the carnival ride and killed people, which is not at all like The Funhouse, I swear.
And what of this so-called "Jonah"? Funny you should ask! Back at The Old Asylum Place, Jonah is visited by the obligatory sadistic orderlies. They taunt Jonah with a steak- see, his file says he's a strict vegetarian! Waving a rib eye in his face will drive him...even crazier! One whiff of the meat sends Jonah into a frenzy; he hulks out, busts his restraints, and punches holes through the evil orderlies.
While this may sound far-fetched, as a vegetarian I can attest that it's totally not. Let's just say that the IHOP in Amarillo is still picking up the pieces after sending bacon along with my scrambled eggs.
Anyway...Jonah has escaped the asylum! Cue the obligatory moon shot!
We all know how this goes, right? Kids die and there's a twist at the end that's right outta left field and makes little sense if you think about it for more than zero seconds. Again, there's nothing wrong with the typical formula is it's done well. Is it done well in Dark Ride? Sadly, I'd have to give that a mostly "no". There's a few genuinely scary sequences, but overall the film is a bit of a letdown. The different sections of the Dark Ride itself are eerie enough, but they never come together in a convincing space. This is mostly likely due to budgetary restraints, but I never got an impression of the ride as a whole. Too many times I found myself saying "Wait...where was that...who was that?", and the disjointed layout sucked the tension out of the few stalking sequences. In addition, there was simply too much light and the atmosphere was disappointingly unthreatening.
Carnivals and Haunted House rides seem to be prime horror film locations to me, and I'm kinda bummed that Dark Ride couldn't quite capitalize. Let's all hope we don't have to wait another 25 years for someone else to give it a shot.