It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
There is a kind of horror movie that plays so convincingly we don't realize it's an exercise in pure style. "Halloween" is an example, and John Dahl's ''Joy Ride'' is another. Both films have an evil, marauding predator who just keeps on coming, no matter what, and always seems to know what the victims will do next. ''Joy Ride'' adds the detail that we never see the villain. We only hear his voice and see his truck.
The film is anchored by convincing characters in a halfway plausible setup. Paul Walker ("The Fast and the Furious") plays Lewis, a college student who has pretended for years to be the best friend of Venna (Leelee Sobieski), when actually he wants to be her boyfriend. He's at school in California, she's in Boulder, and after a sudden inspiration, he offers to drive them both back east for the holidays.
True to the Ebert's Little Movie Glossary entry, which explains that all movie heroes on cross-country journeys drive gas-guzzling classics, Lewis buys a 1971 Chrysler Newport (most of the cars since 1980 look nerdy). Ordinarily the Newport would be a convertible; it needs to be a hardtop this time, so they can be trapped inside.
Lewis makes a detour along the way--to Salt Lake City, where his feckless brother Fuller (Steve Zahn, with a ''What? Me Worry?'' expression) needs to be bailed out on drunk charges. Then it's on to Boulder, while we have lots of time to wonder why the movie spends so much time repeating that Venna goes to Boulder, Boulder, Boulder--only to show us an absolutely flat neocolonial campus with no mountains in the background. This evens the score, I guess, for the mountains that were in the background in "Rumble In The Bronx". No matter. The plot has already tightened its screws. Fuller, who has a gift for attracting trouble, and another gift for seeking it out when it doesn't come to him, talks Lewis into buying a $40 citizen's band radio (''kind of a prehistoric internet''), and then eggs him into imitating a woman's voice on the air. As Candy Cane, Lewis makes a date with a trucker named Rusty Nail. ''She'' says she'll be in Room 17 of a roadside motel--which, Lewis and Fuller know, will be occupied by a customer who's a particularly obnoxious racist. The practical jokers are next door in Room 18.