Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The spirits are back in a remake of Poltergeist, the 1982 horror classic produced (and some say ghost-directed) by Steven Spielberg. And so we’re recommending some of our favorite “Spielberg imitations,” some involving the blockbuster maestro himself.
Just four months after Paul Walker went fast and furious, and a few years before J.J. Abrams fully indulged his E.T. adoration with Super 8, the two teamed up for a bit of old-school highway mayhem in Joy Ride, an underrated throwback that’s deeply indebted to Steven Spielberg’s Duel. Evoking the same open-space, headlight-illuminated horror as that 1971 classic (not to mention featuring a handful of sly allusions to it), John Dahl’s film concerns Lewis (Walker), a college kid who decides to drive home from California to New Jersey because it’ll afford him the opportunity to pick up his Colorado-situated crush, Venna (Leelee Sobieski), along the way. Purchasing a used car, Lewis has no sooner set out on his drive than he’s compelled to bail out his ne’er-do-well older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) from prison in Utah. That decision has dire consequences for them both, as Fuller almost immediately thereafter buys a CB radio for the car, and then goads Lewis into using it to prank a truck driver known as “Rusty Nail” by pretending to be a woman interested in him.
The siblings’ trick winds up luring Rusty Nail to a motel where, upon finding out that there’s no beautiful woman waiting for him, Rusty Nail rips an innocent man’s jaw off—and then decides to come after them. As in Duel, the bad guy’s face is never seen. Defined by his big rig’s blinding lights (shining like evil eyes upon its prey), Rusty Nail is voiced with a menacing drawl by Ted Levine, and he proves to be an ominously vengeful specter throughout Joy Ride, especially once Lewis and Fuller pick up Venna. Dahl’s direction is sharp, unfussy, and shrewd about using noir-ish shadows and creepy widescreen compositions to suggest danger lurking at every turn. Meanwhile, Abrams’ script (co-written with Clay Tarver) not only features a series of superbly constructed hunter-hunted action sequences, but also spends considerable time developing its three protagonists and their shifting dynamic—the better to create suspenseful narrative stakes worth caring about.
Availability: Joy Ride is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.