Rest Stop: Dead Ahead (2006) – By Cary Conley

Nicole and Jesse have run away from suburban Dallas, Texas, to live in L.A. together. Getting off the beaten track, they pull into an old, deserted rest stop to use the bathroom and get their bearings. But when Nicole returns from a quick potty break, it seems Jesse has left her alone as a prank. Nicole soon realizes that it’s no prank as a mysterious stalker in a yellow truck begins to terrorize the vulnerable girl.

Rest Stop is an interesting but uneven film. Part torture-porn, part slasher flick and part ghost story, it can’t really make up its mind just what it is. As Nicole spends a significant time locked up in the bathroom, she begins to notice the messages scrawled on the stalls. Part warning and part pleas for help, it finally dawns on her that this maniac has been killing people for well over three decades now, as evidenced by the fact that there are dozens of "Missing" posters hung up on the bulletin board outside the restroom. As the stalker toys with Nicole, he drops a video camera through the window of the bathroom. The tape contains the systematic torture of Nicole’s boyfriend, Jesse. We see intimate closeups of power drills into Jesse’s thigh, the ripping of a box cutter across his torso, and the snipping off of his tongue, among other atrocities. This is the torture-porn aspect of the film, and although it is a relatively brief amount of the movie’s time–I’d say less than 90 seconds, if I had to guess–it is graphic enough for the production company, Raw Feed, to release the film in both a cut, R-rated version as well as an uncensored, unrated version. No doubt, the film is bloody.

But along the way, Nicole also meets a teenage girl locked in the storage closet of the bathroom. She has obviously been tortured as well and becomes hysterical whenever she thinks the "bad man" is coming back. She tells Nicole her story–how she stole money from her mother’s purse to go to a Rolling Stones concert. That’s when it clicks for Nicole and she realizes she’s seen this girl before…on a missing poster dating to 1971! But then the girl mysteriously disappears without a trace. Is Nicole hallucinating, or perhaps she’s psychotic and has had a breakdown. But it’s implied that what we are really seeing is a ghost. The next confusing episode is when a state trooper rolls in, inadvertently interrupting the stalker’s fun. The trooper gets run over for his trouble and Nicole ends up dragging him to the restroom where the stalker continues his games. Nicole finally escapes through the roof, but as she looks back down one last time at the trooper, he’s gone, too. Now I’m really confused. Everyone in the film interacted with the trooper, so he had to have been real. But he’s disappeared as well, leaving no explanation at all. There is no way he was a hallucination as that would mean the stalker is also a hallucination. But I don’t think he was a ghost either, again because there was too much interaction on the part of both Nicole and the crazed madman. Frankly, I don’t know what the trooper means.

But by far, the most bizarre episode in the film is when Nicole runs into an old motor home. It looks abandoned and is locked, so she gives up on the motor home as a safe haven. But later on, she clearly sees a camera flash going off through a back window. Beating on the window, she again is met by silence. A little bit later, the motor home starts up and begins to leave. Nicole blocks its way and is allowed on where she meets the looniest family this side of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The religious freaks lecture Nicole and tell her she is doomed for her sins…much like the girl who stole money from her Mom and the cop who angrily yelled at his son. You see, Nicole has run away, which is her sin. She’s also had premarital sex with her boyfriend, something this family knows about. So now, we have yet another explanation for this killer that is stalking Nicole. Nicole eventually ends up escaping from the family only to return to the rest stop to continue to fight the killer. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that if you don’t like the ending, you have three alternate ones to choose from in the extra features, so there is something for everyone. Personally, I liked the original ending best. I feel like the original ending to the movie, while probably the most downbeat of the bunch, also goes a long way to explaining just what was going on in the film.

If you like bloody and gruesome movies, then you will enjoy Rest Stop. If you like 70’s style exploitation fare, then you will also probably enjoy this film. The acting is quite good, especially from Jaimie Alexander, the primary lead, who is able to show a very nice range of emotions. The film is technically proficient and nice to look at. My main gripe is simply that no one could decide what kind of film this was going to be. If it’s going to be a gorefest, then go all out. But if it’s a stalk-and-slash film, develop the killer’s character and tell the story. If it’s going to be a ghost story, the deserted back-end rest stop makes a perfect place for a haunting. And if it’s really a story about a young girl’s guilt eating away at her psyche, then flesh that part of the plot out and get on with it. There are excellent elements of all these plots in the movie and every single one of these would make a good story by itself. But mixing elements of all four plots really only serves to confuse–and possible frustrate–the viewer.

I’ve got my own theory as to exactly how this all fits together, but it’s just a personal theory and I don’t want to ruin anything for any potential viewers, so I’ll keep my theories to myself. I will also say that watching some of the deleted scenes also helped me out. Actually, I’m not quite sure why some of the scenes were deleted as several of them seemed to help crystallize the plot for me.

Overall, I enjoyed Rest Stop even though it really is a confusing, muddled mess. It’s bloody, which I like, and it’s certainly open-ended, which I also like, so I was okay with it. Other, less forgiving viewers may not be so nice to the film. I think it’s worth a viewing or two, but I wouldn’t rush out and drop $15 for it. Luckily, I found a copy with its sequel, Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back, used for half that price. The sequel is also billed as uncut and unrated, so my guess is that it will be more of the same.