It may seem odd that I’m reviewing Rest Stop right now since it’s a decade old. Should it be in my “underappreciated” category? Maybe. But I hesitate to label it that because it’s not super great (that’s not the final cut by the way. keep reading please). I’m only reviewing it because it’s surprisingly not bad. I guess that’s to be expected though considering writer/director John Shiban’s credentials. He’s written and/or produced for a lot of big genre TV titles – “The X-Files”, “Supernatural”, “Scream”, etc.. And he’s written and directed some “Breaking Bad” episodes. Why does it seem like nobody has heard of Rest Stop? Well, it may be because it was released straight to video. Or maybe it’s because it’s Shiban’s only feature credit. Who knows? Let’s get into it, shall we?
Nicole is a teenager (22-year-old actress) running away from her Texas home with her boyfriend, Jessie, to make it big as an actress in Los Angeles. He’s going to be her manager and says things like, “Every actress has to do a nude scene.” So, they’re definitely a great couple headed down a healthy road. They take a weird “old highway” that isn’t on “the map” for some reason. They find a quiet turn-out and use their camcorder to shoot a nude scene (they make a sex tape). The audience sees an old, yellow and cream Ford pickup truck stop to take a look for a moment, but the “teens” don’t notice. (that truck is important. remember it for later) Farther along the road, and during some relationship strife, they stop at the titular rest stop. It’s barely more than an outhouse and a park district shack. Nicole goes into the gross facilities to pee and returns to find Jessie gone. That dick! “This isn’t funny!” she says to no one in particular. After some waiting and worrying, the Ford truck returns, nearly running her down. The driver throws Jessie’s bloodied cell phone out of the window before speeding off. Oh shit. Over the next several hours, Nicole fights to stay alive as the stranger with a truck menaces her. She starts to doubt her sanity when she encounters a variety of strange people at the rest stop. In the end, she gets her shit together and summons her inner badass for a final girl style final showdown with yellow truck guy.
Let me get this out of the way right off the bat – this is NOT a great movie. It will appeal to a special sub-set of genre fans who appreciate the good in the bad. And I’m not talking about a so-bad-it’s-good type of movie here. Rest Stop suffers from some really weak acting, a thin plot, and some out-of-place melodrama. That said, it does a great job of building tension and fear. The truck driver/killer is mostly unseen, drawing upon that age old fear of the unknown. It seems the lessons learned from Jaws were not lost on Shiban. (‘don’t show the monster until the third act’ or whatever) Or, maybe the lesson was learned from Speilberg’s Duel instead, since we never get a great look at the killer. Either way, it works. If you are thinking, well, I’d just barricade myself in that brick shithouse and wait for help to arrive, then you aren’t alone. Nicole thought of that too. Then you see the nozzle of a gas gan poked through the window grate. Now, that’s menace! But Nicole doesn’t always do what the viewer expects a smart heroine to do. Nicole is NOT a smart kid. She makes some stupid decisions that might frustrate viewers. But I found myself giving her a pass considering the whole damn movie started off with her making a stupid decision. So, hanging out in a park district shack finishing off a bottle of Wild Turkey when you’re afraid for your life isn’t so dumb in that context. And that might be the only thing a person would be able to do in that situation. That feeling of being isolated and trapped with every minute moving you closer to the inevitable conflict is profoundly effective in horror. And it’s handled fairly well here. It’s not all unseen menace though. The film doesn’t shy away from graphic violence. And the effects are effectively stomach-churning.
THE FINAL CUT: Rest Stop isn’t going to become a cult favorite, but it has a lot to offer fans of low-budget scares. The film’s biggest strength is in the fear it builds around its (mostly) unseen killer and the strangling isolation of its setting.