(Welcome to DTV Descent, a series that explores the weird and wild world of direct-to-video sequels to theatrically released movies. In this edition, we hit the road with troublemaking youths and a murderous trucker named Rusty Nails.)

If you didn’t know it previously or intuitively, horror movies are the ones most likely to see a direct to video follow-up in the years following a successful theatrical release. Sometimes, though, we get sequels to movies that bombed but later found a cult following – witness the abomination that is The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting – and that’s kind of where we’re landing with this week’s DTV Descent entry.

I say “kind of” because 2001’s Joy Ride failed to find profit in theaters having earned back just a little more than its budget. It found its legs – wheels? – on home video and cable, and it’s there where 20th Century Fox’s Home Entertainment division saw dollar signs. Eventually. Seven years after the original’s release, a DTV sequel hit shelves, and six years after that a third film rolled onto home video. At this rate we should expect a Joy Ride 4 to be announced by the end of 2019.

Keep reading as we take a look at the two punnily titled DTV sequels to Joy Ride to see if they’re worth the road trip to your local video store.

The Beginning

Lewis and Venna are college friends who decide to drive home on break across the Western United States, but any hope he has of growing closer to her is squelched by the forced inclusion of Lewis’ troublemaking brother Fuller. The brothers quickly find themselves in a brutal jam after pranking a truck driver over the CB radio, and the terror continues after picking up Venna. The man, self-identified as one Rusty Nails, displays a wickedly violent sensibility and soon targets the three for a cruelly drawn-out game of revenge destined to leave a trail of carnage on and off the sparsely populated highway. Bodies hit the pavement, but after a tense face-off the three college kids walk away with their lives… as does Mr. Nail.

The DTV Plots

Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead (2008) opens with Rusty Nail murdering a truck-stop prostitute (in a manner that would clearly serve as an inspiration for Ari Aster a decade later) before driving off into the night. Melissa and Bobby are a young couple heading to Las Vegas to tie the knot, but what they don’t know is that at least one of them will be involuntarily bound and gagged well before they reach the state line. Melissa’s younger sister Kayla is along for the ride, and the good times hit a bump when she picks up her internet “boyfriend” Nik. They met on Myspace, but don’t worry, she Googled his name to confirm he isn’t a serial killer. The newcomer suggests a shortcut, and if you think it leaves the four lost and stranded in the middle of nowhere, well, pat yourself on the back. They break into a ramshackle house and steal the car in the garage, and while that’s a bad call in general, it’s made worse in that the house is Rusty Nail’s home. Fools! Understandably peeved by their intrusion and theft, he sets out to make their road trip as miserable as possible leaving only one of the four standing by the end… along with Mr. Nail.

Joy Ride 3: Roadkill (2014) starts with a pair of meth heads enjoying some carnal relations before realizing they need another hit. Desperate times call for desperate measures so they call a trucker hoping to draw him in for sex only to rob him instead. Fools! Don’t they know you should never prank truckers? He outwits and out-muscles the couple, chains them to hood of his truck, and then drives until they fall beneath the wheels where they’re ground to bits leaving a trail of blood and body parts down the road. The police suspect a basic hit and run, obviously. Six friends find themselves on the same road as they take the highway towards Canada for a car race they hope to win, but well before they get there, the group plays a game of chicken they’re destined to lose. They irritate Rusty Nail to the point that he obviously has to teach them some manners, and soon they’re all engaged in a series of mishaps, assaults, abductions, and murders. Only two of them will live to see another day… just like their new friend Mr. Nail.

Talent Shift

As is often the case, this just isn’t a fair comparison. The 2001 original is directed by John Dahl, and while he’s absent from the cinema these days the filmmaker previously gave us legit gems like The Last Seduction (1994) and Rounders (1998). He helped craft the film into an atmospheric thriller, and the script came with its own heavy hitter in the form of co-writer J.J. Abrams. This was well before he fell in love with secret boxes and instead just delivers a tight, entertaining tale. Marco Beltrami’s score adds to the mix and helps shape the adrenaline-fueled suspense scenes. Cast-wise, all three of the leads here are recognizable faces in the form of Paul Walker, Steve Zahn, and Leelee Sobieski. Rusty Nail is always in the shadows, but he’s voiced by the great Ted Levine giving him all the weight that comes with Levine’s memorable vocals. And bonus, Walton Goggins is a background police officer!

Dead Ahead won’t turn any heads with its cast, but director Louis Morneau has visited both the highs and lows of my genre-loving heart. Unfortunately, the mad genius who made me swoon with Retroactive (1997) is nowhere to be found here and we’re instead stuck with him in Carnosaur 2 (1995) mode. Roadkill‘s writer/director Declan O’Brien has nine feature films to his name, and six of them are DTV sequels. So that tells you what’s up with that. His cast fares only slightly better because co-star Sara Mitich recently joined the cast of TV’s Star Trek: Discovery. That’s a real show that people watch!

How the Sequels Respect the Original

In case it’s not clear by now, neither sequel even approaches the thrills of the original, but Roadkill does improve a little on the action front over Dead Ahead. They do hold true to their predecessor in minor ways. For one thing, they keep Rusty Nail as the constant killer. Most serial killers are truck drivers after all – certainly not true, but someone says it in one of the sequels so we’ll play along – and the films craft him into someone capable of holding down a job while also eluding police despite leaving literal body trails in his wake. The other narrative thread between the films is that there’s always an asshole in the group whose actions somehow catch Rusty Nail’s attention. Zahn’s obnoxious troublemaker succeeds, though, because he’s still entertaining and ultimately regretful, but that brings us to where the sequels diverge.

How the Sequels Shits on the Original

There are no likable characters in either of the sequels! One of the necessities in most good horror/thriller films is at least one character viewers can root for and/or care about. We get none of that in the sequels meaning we give absolutely zero shits when they’re crushed, smashed, and otherwise dispatched. Zahn’s prickish behavior works because he’s a talented enough performer in that we’re along for his laughs and believe in his redemption, but the characters here are just jerks, and worse, they’re dull. The films try to have Rusty pick up the slack in the personality department, but the end result is a cheesy, wise-cracking killer who talks too damn much (via ADR it seems). There are entire scenes of him yammering away! It completely removes his mystery and moves him from being an intriguing threat to just another poorly written movie “monster.”

Conclusion

Dahl’s original Joy Ride remains a solidly entertaining thriller that could almost sit side by side with the under-appreciated but brilliant The Hitcher (1986) in the list of great road trip horror/thriller movies. The sequels, though, rank far closer to the abysmal disaster that is The Hitcher II (2003). So the takeaway here is to drive safe, be considerate on the road, and stick with the franchise originals at all times.

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