Whatever one thinks of the economic ethics of popular and well-known app-based taxi substitutes, they’ve been a boon to low-budget suspense-horror … and Night Drive, not to be confused with the Valerie Harper TV movie or the 2010 South African survival horror, now joins a future Top Ten list which will include Ride, Ryde, Driven, The Toll, Blinders, Spree, Rideshare, The Rideshare Killer, etc. For those keeping score, it’s breaks just about even in terms of films about rideshare drivers from hell versus films about rideshare passengers from hell. It’s likely that many of these films take their structural cues from Michael Mann’s Collateral, which was about good old-fashioned taxi driver whose fare turned out to be a hit man.
A first feature directed by multi-hyphenates Brad Baruh (also cinematographer) and Meghan Leon (also screenwriter and editor), this relies to a great degree on lead actors AJ Bowen and Sophie Dalah – who are onscreen almost all the time, and cop 90% of the dialogue. Russell (Bowen) is a grey-haired divorcee working through the Christmas holidays, though the fact that he has a $70,000 car suggests he hasn’t always been struggling – in fact, he’s haunted by a decision he made to let his partner in a tech firm buy him out before their product became huge, which seems at first like character-building backstory but turns out to be a springboard for several later plot developments. His fare is Charlotte (Dalah), a 22-year-old Australian chatterbox who gives of alternate free spirit and absolute nutcase vibes and slips him cash to make just one stop along the way to her destination – in rideshare horror films, this is always a sign of bad things ahead. She dashes back from an ex-boyfriend’s apartment with a small lock-box and insists they make a getaway …
The rest of the evening involves knocking down a not-actually-random guy (Scott Pothyress) in the street, buying dispose-of-the-body equipment and trying to pass it off as a last-minute gardening-themed Christmas present, a car chase, a murder or two, some gruesome corpse-disposal, a discussion of top five Christmas songs that reveals Charlotte can’t tell the difference between Bing Crosby and Bill Cosby, an unusually non-sexual game of one-upmanship between the main characters and – setting up the third act – a fantastical reveal about what’s in the box. Night Drive is a psycho passenger movie, though Dalah has enough charm to make her also a possible life-changing influence on the schlubby driver – but takes a strange turn that works because it’s been foreshadowed. In the box is a key and a watch, and at the end of the ride is a room … where the film twists into science fiction or horror, and we get to think back over the set-up to spot the clues as to what the characters have really been thinking or doing all along.
It’s low budget and rough at the edges, but that’s appropriate – Collateral was a major studio film with big stars, and worked hard to look like something made at the budget level of this indie. Bowen has been doing great work in low-budget horror, specialising in fallible, sort-of likeable, potentially dangerous characters – he’s in A Horrible Way to Die, The House of the Devil, You’re Next, The Sacrament, Dead Night, I Trapped the Devil, The Guest and Satanic Panic; this is one of his best showcases. Baruh and Leon are plainly a team to watch.