Known for its selection of unnerving and underrated acquisitions of films that appear to exist on the unconventional fray, Artsploitation Films brings Jason Banker’s hallucinatory horror film Toad Road to DVD. A hit among a handful of film festivals, including Fantasia International Film Festival, where it won Best Director and Best Actor, Banker’s film has established a solid following with his first feature film, winning praise from a variety of top tier sources and even more eclectic avenues, such as a celebratory insert accompanying the disc, which contains praise from actor Elijah Wood. But, to be honest, there needs to be a differentiation here in what some may define as a horror film, as there’s really nothing horrific that goes on here. Sure, it hints at passing through the gates at Hell, but more so as a metaphor for addiction, instead it plays like some odd minded documentary about bored teenagers that turn into lost adults, on constant verge of going too far and doing too much.
James (James Davidson) likes to get really high with his ragtag group of friends, seemingly all day, every day. But recently, he’s met a girl named Sara (Sara Anne Jones), who, new to the world of hallucinogens, wants to take a journey down Toad Road, a road in the thick of the woods that has seven gates that apparently lead to hell. No one has ever made it past the fifth gate, and these are only revealed to those that are high in the woods at night. After we’re privy to random antics, Sara pressures James into accompanying her down Toad Road, as, getting high for purely recreational purposes doesn’t seem to have the same integrity as when you have a justifiable reason, like finding out how to get to hell.
Artsploitation’s DVD release looks fine, a transfer that’s supposed to look grainy and tattered. About half an hour of bonus features, including audio commentary from the director, audition videos, behind the scenes, and deleted scenes all seem to convey a dogged commitment to the film, but it all sounds like a good idea may have existed that doesn’t quite come to fruition.
Banker’s main folly with Toad Road is that he’s banking on maintaining our interest while we watch a group of stoned, hallucinating people mill about aimlessly in their self-destruction. As anyone that’s ever had to be sober cab knows, there is no fun to be had being sober around a bunch of high/drunk friends and acquaintances. In fact, it’s a turn off. This doesn’t mean that watching Toad Road under the influence would be any better, as there’s little momentum to the narrative. In essence, it’s an art-house horror film, but really only in its last twenty minutes or so, when a creepy disappearance unspools to the end credits, where, creepiest of all, we learn that the film is dedicated to its lead actress, Sara Anne Jones, who died from a drug overdose in 2012.
The inclusion of behind the scenes footage seems to indicate that many of these “actors” where under the influence during filming, and, we assume their characters share their same first names to avoid any slip-ups during filming, such as forgetting that they’re supposed to be playing someone else. Taken together, the film is most potent as some deranged PSA. And while there are certainly a large amount of mediocre horror films out there, Toad Road is not a unique answer to the mediocrity of the mainstream.
Unfocused, it can only ever hint at the chills it wishes to evoke, its lack of characterization meaning we never quite care who these people are or why they’re acting so irresponsibly. Sure, it may bring to mind bad trips from one’s past, and maybe some of those were scary or even terrifying, but just as when relating stories from your glory days, you kinda had to be there to really appreciate it. As far as addiction as an existential hell, even metaphors have to be compelling.
Film Review: 2/5
Disc Review: 2/5