You have to feel sorry for the truck drivers of America. First there was Steven Spielberg's 1971 debut Duel, which showed them to be nameless, faceless, remorseless demons who prowl Middle America's vast and lonely highways. Then there was 1997's Breakdown, proving that there's nothing as scary as hillbilly truckers slurping coffee in crappy diners. And now Road Kill roars over the horizon, splattering the remains of their reputations all over the highway.
And it does it superbly - far better than the numerous release date and name changes suggest (working titles included Candy Cane, Highway Horror and the delightfully onomatopoeic Squelch, before it definitely settled on Joy Ride. Then changed to Road Kill). For make no mistake about it, the John Dahl behind the wheel of this beautifully jolt-ridden journey is the director who made Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, rather than the imposter who hijacked Unforgettable and Rounders. And this is one of the smartest, most enjoyable youngsters-stalked-by-lunatic thrillers in years.
Driving from Colorado to New Jersey to pick up old friend/potential bed partner Venna (Leelee Sobieski), clean-cut college kid Lewis (Paul Walker) stops off en route to post bail for his black sheep older brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn). Bad idea. Or at least the jape that follows is. Fuller installs a CB radio, you see, and takes to the airwaves to play a prank ona trucker with the handle Rusty Nail. Oh, how the boys laugh - until they discover that some psychotic loners just can't take a joke...
And then the scares begin. As the persistent storm metaphor suggests, the horror escalates notch by notch, with the odd spectacular shock acting like a, er, lightning fork to the heart, before the tension drops and starts building all over again. In one bravura moment, the camera even zooms in on a cheap picture of a brewing tempest as the film's most grotesque act of violence is only dimly heard through a motel wall. The effect is stunning.
Road Kill also scores big by delivering laughs without a tiresome ironic wink, meaning the wisecracks relieve, but never deflate, the tension. This is largely down to Zahn's likeable Fuller and his quips, which tease your defenses down so the terror can strike unguarded. And when it does, the resultant emotional devastation is convincingly registered by Walker (The Fast And The Furious' blonde Keanu Reeves-alike) and the no-nonsense Sobieski (a young Helen Hunt).
Admittedly, it's not perfect. Your disbelief will certainly require some suspension at Rusty Nail's almost supernatural powers, while the occasional cliché dogs the final stretch. But just as you judge a comedy by the number of laughs, you rate a thriller by how often you jump out of your seat. Road Kill will have you bouncing like a monkey on a spin dryer.
John Dahl returns to form with this slick, terrifying kids-in-peril flick. Dark highways, lonely motels and a big truck are the basic ingredients for a hugely satisfying chiller.