Drop Something on a Walk Down Toad Road

Toad Road. 2012. Directed & Written by Jason Banker.
Starring James Davidson and Sara Anne Jones.
WTFilms.
Unrated. 76 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★1/2

I didn’t know until recently, but Elijah Wood and his company SpectreVision were the ones to present Toad Road.  They’ve been starting to bring some interesting films to the world including this one, the recent Open WindowsCooties [which I can’t wait for], and my personally most highly anticipated horror of 2014, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.Toad-Road-FRONT-COVERToad Road has been described as being a cross between Kids and The Blair Witch Project. I’d definitely agree there is an aspect of Harmony Korine in there, not only in the characters but also in the way Banker shot everything. Aside from that alone, I don’t think I’d really try and draw any parallels between Toad Road and The Blair Witch Project; to my mind, there isn’t anything really paranormal, supernatural, or whatever, going on here. One of the best descriptions (albeit coming from a negative review) is a contemporary annotated version of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. To this, I can draw comparisons absolutely.
The story isn’t anything really challenging, or complex – James (Davidson) is a guy who hangs around with a group of people that get their kicks out of drugs, everything, anything they can get their hands on, but mostly psychedelics. He then meets a girl named Sara (Jones), who has the false belief she can find herself, find something, in drugs. While James tries to talk her away from all of this, Sara’s unmovable. She wants to experience more through drugs. Soon, James drops the name of Toad Road into conversation, telling her drugs are a path similar to that place; an urban legend about a path in the woods behind a mental institution, which goes through the Seven Gates to Hell.
Sara becomes obsessed, believing Toad Road to be a beautiful legend instead of creepy. Eventually, James and Sara go down Toad Road, as she believes going through the Seven Gates will be some sort of revelation— not the Christian Hell, something real, and possibly miraculous. Reluctantly, James goes along with Sara. Nobody has ever made it past the fifth gate, where time starts to warp, and change. No one’s ever gotten to the sixth or seventh gates, apparently.  She wants to take drugs, and experience Toad Road like some sort of literal path to enlightenment. Sara says “something attached itself” to her after her experience on mushrooms earlier. As they wander further through the gates, it’s evident there may be a lot more to the legend of Toad Road than James had ever thought.Toad Road 5The whole film has a very documentary style feel. I’m not positive if the people in the movie were taking actual drugs or not. Regardless, they did a good job of showing what it’s like to be on drugs. For people who’ve never experienced drugs or the people who have while managing to never really slip into the whole lifestyle, the characters in Toad Road may seem unrealistic, maybe even foolish. Yes, they’re definitely a bunch of druggies, fairly ridiculous crowd, but for those like myself – luckily I turned my life around – who’ve been into that lifestyle, these characters are all too painfully real.
For an indie film, this has a decent little story. It’s simple yet effective. The message isn’t particularly anti-drugs or anything, but the plot really does help work against any decision people might make soon about dropping acid and heading out into the woods. As James and Sara head down Toad Road, The Seven Gates of Hell mirror the plot. Soon, Sara’s missing, and time stretches out much longer than James conceived it to be. He makes it out of the woods, she is nowhere in sight. Suddenly, the police, friends, family are looking for her. They all think James knows something more than he is letting on. Essentially, The Seven Gates of Hell come to represent the whole lifestyle James and Sara were falling into, and while they went further and further down the road, The Gates took on real meaning in their lives. They made it all the way down Toad Road. And they paid the price.toad road 3The acting is fairly good, as I mentioned before.  If they were taking drugs for real, it’s certainly a testament to the fact they could still be coherent at times to do any dialogue.  If not, the acting is even better because they really put forth the feeling of being under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, and the like.  Davidson and Jones carry things nicely, even more so when the plot focuses in solely on them as they begin their journey down Toad Road.
One of my favourite bits concerning the acting was Jones doing a voiceover.  It played over various portions of the film. Most effectively, Banker used the voiceover narration to really drive home the points where James is really going insane, straight off the deep end, near the film’s finale. She narrates his spiral downward, as he essentially is recalling her tell him about what happens as you pass through each gate on the way to Hell. Some really chilling moments. Very quiet, subdued moments coupled with great cinematography, a few beautiful locations. This really worked. Jones’s voice is beautiful and kind of guides us down Toad Road in a way. Spooky stuff.
The real problem with Toad Road overall as a film is that even though there are things happening, a lot of time gets chewed up almost feeling like a documentary about a bunch of drug addicts. Though there are some good moments, and certainly scenes which add to characters of both James and Sara, the pacing starts to really drag in several spots.toad-road-3The finale of the film is a bit hindered by the fact there’s no real huge climax. It almost feels as if there should’ve been more additional scenes involving the aftershock of Sara’s disappearance – it seems like the police went really soft on James. Although we see a few scenes where James is being interrogated, I feel like those were the scenes which ultimately lacked sincerity. We get a lot of reality, documentary style moments in the early half of Toad Road, but once it starts to shift into a more mystery/thriller genre for the last half [which could have worked wonderfully] it lacks the composition of a real drama.
The switch from the reality-based portion of the beginning to a forced dramatic and thrilling angle didn’t work. The cop interrogating James wasn’t great, either. Not terrible, just not great. It didn’t feel as if those bits matched up to the rest of the film. Even the closing moments of the finale, those worked very well with the atmosphere and tone built up by the first half of the film. They would’ve benefited by either giving the cops more screentime and making it feel as reality driven as the earlier scenes, or just cut out those parts. They could’ve just as easily focused mainly on James trying to evade police, talking to his friends, bits of which they did include, and then went with the finale they’d chosen. Instead, the parts with the cops really throw off the balance, and make the last quarter of the film a bit sloppy.Toad Road 1Though there are some flaws here, Toad Road is a pretty decent horror outing.  Certainly for an independent horror film. There’s a lot of visual flair here, and you can tell Banker has an eye for beauty in horror. That being said, I did have a problem with some pacing issues here, and if they could be ironed out I think this would be an even better film. I still loved it. Once the credits start rolling – with an appropriate dedication to one of the film’s stars, Sara Anne Jones, who died of a drug overdose just as Toad Road started screening in different places – there’s a haunting little song to go along. It really all works.
Toad Road stuck with me for days and days after I first saw it. You can get it on DVD now I believe, as well as through Amazon and other VOD options. I had to come back to it after seeing it a long while ago when I got the chance, and while there were small bits I felt held it back, overall Toad Road is good, and definitely a lot better than the hordes of low budget horror out there tackling the same zombies and vampires and masked killers as the hundreds which came before them. This film at least aims the bar higher. I hope to see more from Jason Banker, and look forward to his upcoming Felt, which recently found distribution.
Get yourself a copy of Toad Road. Even if you’re divided after watching, it’s hard not to admit the film has a certain charm to it, and a creepy, haunting quality.

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