Fantasia 2012: Follow the freaky, bleak ‘Toad Road’

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Toad Road

Directed by Jason Banker

Written by Jason Banker

U.S.A., 2012

‘Go to hell.’ ‘My life is a living hell.’ ‘What the hell just happened?’ These are but some of the countless examples of how flippantly the term ‘hell’ is utilized in everyday idiom. The word offers a flexibility unparalleled with almost any other. Considering how malleable the word is, just what is society’s conception of hell exactly? It is real, imagined, a thing to be thought about, a thing to be ignored out of fear? Toad Road, from first time writer-director Jason Banker, had its world premier at Fantasia 2012 this year and provides one of the many interpretations of the underworld, although no one leaving this film will confuse hell with anything flippant.

The story is set in an undisclosed countryside in the northern United States. A group of friends, among them one of the movie’s protagonists, James (newcomer James Davidson), have endless fun amongst themselves with the dependable help of drugs and alcohol, both of which never fail to send the friends on their way to completely mindless misadventures. There is a new addition to the group, Sara (Sara Anne Jones), an initially sweet girl from the big city who takes a liking to James and him to her. Slowly but surely Sara, via her attraction to James, is drawn into his world of drug induced nighttime gatherings and tomfoolery. It is not long before Sara, once quite innocent, grows all to comfortable with this behavioural pattern, and yet she is seeking something more. Her increased drug and alcohol usage satisfies her for only so long until she wants to try something more intense, something that will grant her an even greater effect. The potential for such a find arrives when, one night while cooking with James, the latter tells her the urban legend of Toad Road, which is apparently not too far from where they live. The road in question is more of a eerily discernible path in the woods upon which are laid seven wooden gates, each one leading a passerby closer and closer to hell itself. What awaits them there, only they themselves can know…

Toad Road walks the fine line between social drama and horror film that fits nicely in the Fantasia’s lineup. Director Jason Banker infuses the picture with a tremendous atmosphere and a sense of impending danger that all too many horror movies lack. That is partly the film’s greatest strength, its ability to build a discomforting mood by juggling two disparate story elements that mutually inform each other. Had the film concentrated its efforts on being a chilling genre flick about an entrance to hell on Earth, Toad Road might still have proven successful, but with its additional intention of exploring the lives of troubled youth, youth which set themselves few limits in terms of toxic consumption, the project actually strives for more and is all the more accomplished because of it.

This melding of the social drama and horror is cleverly established in the script as it is visually compelling on screen. In essence, Sara and James (and their drugged up pals) push themselves to further limits with more potent materials with each successive party. In the vicinity is the location of the seven gates which presumably lead to hell. As Sara, whom the film uses as co-protagonist during the first half, increases the dosage and intensity of her drug usage, she begins to experience some otherworldly sessions. Remarkably intense hallucinations assault both her and the audience, forcibly bringing us along for the nightmarish ride as well. Thus begins Toad Road‘s palpable mystery. Just how much truth is there in the legend of the titular path? What Sara sees, hears and feels is anything but pleasant, and while one might assume it is but the symptoms of a first time heavy drug consumption, clearly something is amiss in her hallucinogenic misadventures. How much of them emanates from her mind playing tricks on her and how much relates to…nefarious spiritual forces that linger in the woods, pulling her towards the gates of hell? Such scenes make for surprisingly powerful sensory experiences, a testament to director Banker’s talents.

This is but one of the two important ways in which the social drama informs Toad Road‘s more horror-centric angle. The other arrives when, after these unforgettable psychedelic experiences, Sara is compelled to explore the infamous road. James’ description of the locale is eerie, and it could simply make for a fun night out in the woods, yet ‘fun’ is not quite what attracts Sara to the idea. Nay, her intuition is to discover what she believes might be a truth. Once more, are these solely the drugs toying with her mind and spirit, or is something else inexorably dragging her to hell? The film keeps the viewer on their toes, that much is certain, wonderfully balancing the drama, horror and mystery.

At this stage in the review, words need to be used judiciously, for any bit of information may prove to be too revelatory, thus spoiling for fun those willing to give the movie a chance. Toad Road does eventually give something resembling an explanation as to what happen when once venture down Toad Road. The results feel completely satisfactory for many reasons. First, without giving too much away, they are in line what has occurred in the film up until the point when James and Sara choose to discover the path and cross the unwelcoming, lonely gates. Second, they create yet another mystery which feeds the second half of the film, which at this point concentrates more on the James character. His experience in hell is intelligently drawn written and presented to the audience.

 

Toad Road comes close to being a truly great little film, although a few bumps prevent from attaining said status. True enough, the review cheered on Jason Banker’s attempts at constructing, in part, a social drama about delinquent youth. Nevertheless, perhaps too much time is spent dwelling on their ills, which leads to a few scenes whose purpose is unclear. James and Sara feel as they should matter more than of the other peripheral characters, yet a couple more suddenly become important for a few scenes, thus dragging out the drama for longer than is required. The additional scenes also have the characters, especially James and Sara, debating about whether to leave the band behind and start anew elsewhere, which seems a little bit silly given that Sara rather easily convinces James to go down Toad Road with her anyways. It’s just a little bit of back and forth ‘do we change or don’t we’ that the movie does not require, hurting the flow somewhat in the first half. In essence, for a film which lasts barely 80 minutes, it takes a long time to arrive at Toad Road.

It is always a pleasure to witness the arrival of a bright young director, especially at pleasant events like the Fantasia film festival. Toad Road exemplifies Jason Banker’s intelligence and maturation as a writer, not to mention his pertinent visionary goals as a director. For a film produced with such a modest budget, it promises that very good things are to come in the future.

-Edgar Chaput

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