“TOAD ROAD” (Movie Review)
In TOAD ROAD, Hell is many things. One is a destination, of course. More than that however, it’s a goal. It’s also a time and a place in our lives where there’s nothing left (and nothing better) to do than self-destruct. Then, for what could be one of the most tragic characters in contemporary horror, it’s greater than just something fiery and frightening. It’s transcendental, a higher plane. And in TOAD ROAD, all of these possibilities converge, as do documentary and fiction, as do folklore and bored suburban youth, as do the misguided Sara, her poetic quest for otherworldliness, her shitty friends and all of the psychedelics they ingest. It ends sunken and haunting, a unique and uniquely affecting modern tale of terror.
Spiraling, addiction, even simple misguided haze are ripe for horror stories, as they live on unsure footing, easily taken advantage of by negative energy and hostile, darker forces. The originality with which TOAD ROAD writer/director Jason Banker approaches such is by crafting this particular story around a real group of friends quite actually struggling and partying their way through that fog. A great deal of footage in the film is unsettling vérité, as an ensemble of friends black out with and around each other, taking tried-and-true substances and experimenting with wince-worthy fads like blowing Vicks into their eyes. A story stumbles forward, as new addition Sara (a transfixing Sara Anne Jones) dips harder and further than most, while juggling intimacies with James (James Davidson) and Whitleigh (Whitleigh Higuera).
More than just a focus on a non-fictional social circle, TOAD ROAD is especially noteworthy—and possibly more unnerving— for its spotlight on a mostly unexplored subculture that circle belongs to, and one this writer recognizes well. The music may not be an overbearing presence, mostly relegated to background noise, but it informs what initially united James, Whitleigh & Co. It’s in their physicality, their fashion, hair and spastic nature. With frail bodies distorted by ill-fitting jeans, hoodies and carelessness, they are outsiders listening to mostly shunned modern offshoots of punk, popularly referred to as screamo and what have you. Of course, wasted suburban youth is nothing new, but TOAD ROAD’s unflinching depiction of a fairly contemporary trend is raw. It’s where the unstaged, more truly frightening moments can be found.
That point blank picture of Pennsylvanian stupor is edited into and brushes up against a more nightmare-like nature. Lo-fi cam footage meets evocative cinematography, just as Sara and James attempt to find beautiful connection in a vomitorium. It’s all hallucinatory, and not unfathomable to feel as wasted as the characters as TOAD ROAD wears on, and wears down its leads. James is attempting to emerge from the requisite twenty-something ennui and debauchery. He lacks a firm goal though, which along with his intense affection for her, leads him to fall prey to Sara’s. New to acid, shrooms and Adderall, Sara believes there’s more to it all. She believes her abuse is meaningful, unlike the misfits she gets fucked with. Sara studies psychedelics, their possible opening of a doorway between worlds, and anchors it in local urban legend Toad Road.
The titular path is said to lead through the seven gates of hell. As alluded toward, Sara finds comfort in the possibilities. There’s something waiting for her through the gates, each one she describes through voiceover. On TOAD ROAD’s commentary, director Banker reveals he outlined each gate, but star Jones truly ran with it, pouring herself into the descriptions. It’s a further blending of reality and fiction, and the character’s touching of the supernatural with drug-addled vision. It makes the entire journey frightfully intimate and ambiguous, as Sara the character and Sara the actress inject hopes, fears and anxieties into a campfire story. In that respect, TOAD ROAD feels as if it wouldn’t be out-of-step in a double feature with this year’s THE LORDS OF SALEM, or Ben Wheatley’s A FIELD IN ENGLAND, or Eduardo Sanchez’s LOVELY MOLLY which all find supernatural folklore blurred by isolation and the use of drugs. SALEM and MOLLY, in particular, are appropriate as their leads are something of kindred spirits with Sara, although hardened and reversed so that both know their retreat into dark habits will spell doom.
Immediately following the inevitable journey through Toad Road and its gates, TOAD ROAD the film can seem disappointing, as if it could’ve gone further, gotten more out there. Its final section however then reveals the psychedelia was in Jorge Torres-Torres’ editing and Banker’s refusal to visualize the minds of these characters. While James, Sara and the entire cast are subject to hallucination, we’re left sober to witness troubling behavior, facial expression and jolts. The closest we come to reaching another side is in the climax of the Toad Road walk, one whose noise-heavy sound design and brief surreal images are enough to properly scare the viewer a step back.
When James awakens, cold in a world without Sara (as we do. Sara Anne Jones very sadly died after the film’s completion and premiere, unquestionably lending an unshakeable aspect to TOAD ROAD), his conception of time entirely warped, the epilogue which follows reveals that again, Hell is many things and comes in many forms. Wherever Sara is, that’s Hell. The dissolution of his social circle he discovers upon return, that’s Hell. Crossing a line he came so close to avoiding, Hell. Being shut out, wracked with uncertain guilt and succumbing to a miserable life: Hell. Hell as a destination may in fact be real, but until we’re confronted with its existence, we’ve little difficulty in creating our own right here.