With Joy Ride, director John Dahl abandons the sophisticated plotting of his earlier films, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, in favor of more visceral thrills, and it pays off with a suspenseful and darkly comic kick. The script, by Clay Tarver and Felicity co-creator J.J. Abrams, cribs from the TV movie that put Steven Spielberg on the map, Duel. It has a surfeit of wit and strong, believable characters, which is good, because in less assured hands it could have been a routine teen horror flick. Dahl gets the most out of his talented young cast, especially Steve Zahn as Fuller, the dangerously reckless, but oddly charming and surprisingly resourceful older brother. In past films, Zahn has overplayed his goofball charm, but here he finds just the right balance between imprudent jerk and lovable scoundrel. Fuller, Lewis (Paul Walker), and Venna (Leelee Sobieski) come across as real people. It's easy to see how their supposed anonymity leads the brothers to feel that they'll get away with their cruel CB radio prank, and their reactions to the horrible situation they find themselves in are unassailably rational. This draws the audience in to the scary story. Dahl knows how to build suspense. His dark palette is filled with eerie taillight reds, and the occasional roar of a passing tractor-trailer jarringly disrupts the quiet of his middle-of-nowhere highway locations. The mysterious trucker, known only by his CB handle Rusty Nail, is a frightening villain -- righteously angry, powerful, and relentless. The scene in which Fuller and Lewis listen helplessly through the motel wall as he maims his first victim is a restrained masterpiece of horror, and perfectly sets up all the tension to come.