Toad Road was a detour on my 31 Days journey. I’d intended to watch The Exorcist III: The Heretic as my movie for both 31 Days and Fear Flashback Friday, but Shudder kept bumping me out to the home screen every minute or so. I spent way too long trying to figure it out and it was late when I finally gave up on it. Maybe I’ll try again tonight.
Given my truncated viewing time I – shamefully – looked around for flicks with the shortest running time. Toad Road clocks in at a lean 76 minutes – and I’d had it recommended to me before as a surreal, trippy film – so I went for it.
Streaming on Shudder. Probably 70% of the films I’ll watch this month will be through Shudder.
Toad Road starts off in an interesting enough way – a woman’s voice talks about the ‘Seven Gates of Hell’ and then we see a young man wake up in a snowy wood. After stumbling to the road he’s picked up by a passerby and we start to get a sense of what’s coming – a lot of faux-documentary style rambling discourse without a lot to show for it.
Most of the movie feels like an indie ‘slice of life’ film about a group of drug-happy wasted youth. It rambles on and on, it does succeed at making you feel like your uncomfortably close to the real life of the people you’re seeing. The director, Jason Banker, is a documentary filmmaker by trade, and he has that knack of making you feel like you’re in the room (maybe the only sober one in the room, but hey). It’s an uncomfortable sort of voyeurism, because you’re seeing people at – arguably – their worst. It’s hard to muster up too much empathy for people whose joys include setting fire to the ass hair of their buddies after they pass out.
In this passive kind of nihilism there are two characters who have motivations beyond the next high and the next shitty band rehearsal. There’s James – the guy who’s starting to think that he’s gotten in too deep and maybe it’s time to start clawing his way out. And his girlfriend, Sara, a college freshmen just starting to get pulled into the group’s dark, toxic gravity.
What James wants is a someone to bring him out of the rooms and roofs and caves where people nod and argue and blow powdered pills into each other’s eyes and in Sara he sees someone who represents a life beyond that. A life lived further in the light. But Sara is looking for something too – and when James half-heartedly agrees to let her try mushrooms for the first time, she things she’s found it. She thinks the drugs have opened that ‘door of perception’ in her mind and that she’s on the path to a true epiphany.
But of course she’s really on the path to hell – literally.
Sara becomes equally obsessed with drugs and a legend about a woods path known locally as Toad Road. Supposedly the trail passes through seven gates – gone physically, but still visible for those in ‘altered’ states. Each gate brings an increase in strange phenomena – visual and auditory hallucinations, a disconnection with time – and going through them all will lead you to Hell. According to local legend, anyway. It’s not clear if Sara believes that passing through all seven will literally take you to Hell, or that those escalating experiences will bring her to that understanding she craves.
After way too much random drug use and mumbled conversations the duo finally makes their way to Toad Road and drop acid – so they can see the gates, of course. They become separated, James passes out, and we’re taken back to the beginning with him waking up in the snow. Months have somehow passed and Sara is missing. With James’ return he becomes a person of interest in the investigation.
Banker is not really interested in giving us a satisfying conclusion and, aside from some freaky flashback sequences of either a bad trip or a really, REALLY bad trip, there’s little in the way of closure.
The Bottom Line
I can’t say Toad Road was a complete waste of time. There’s a mood of impending doom that suffuses the film. Like watching footage of people you know died badly. The director says he wanted to make something that was a bit like a cross between Kids and The Blair Witch Project – and you can see those influences – but it ultimately isn’t as good or interesting as either one. And there’s little in the way of actual horror.
The most horrifying thing about the film is that the lead actress who played Sara died a short time after the film’s release. Of a drug overdose.