Screwing with genre in a similar way that micro-budget relative Aaron Katz does, Jason Banker’s “Toad Road” is an off-putting horror tale that abstains from the easy routes its kin generally take. We’re first introduced to James (James Davidson) as he awakens in a niveous woodland, isolated and curiously disheveled. It’s a crafty opening, establishing a certain uneasiness with an enduring take shot from afar. He manages to hail down a ride, but despite the stranger’s prodding at why the man was out in the middle of nowhere alone, the protagonist keeps a lid on it.
“Toad Road” then switches gears. Adopting a verite documentary aesthetic and hopping back in time, we see what kind of person James really is. He parties too hard, sees a therapist to appease his Dad (and keep those rent checks coming), and does nothing that could even remotely be described as productive. At one of his gang’s many shindigs (which seem to happen daily) he engages in conversation with Sarah, an innocent-looking girl who turns out to be a stark contrast to the rest of the group: she’s a dedicated student, not to mention a prude in regards to drugs. As their relationship builds, so does her interest in the insane amount of substance abuse James is partaking in. Eventually she falls into the endless benders and becomes increasingly interested in mind altering experiences, so much so that she suggests trekking through urban legend staple Toad Road (a forest path behind an old mental hospital) while tripping; the ultimate mind-melt. But the couple get more than they bargained for when they stumble through the unwelcoming locale, and after their excursion, things change dramatically.
The most overt horror elements don’t come into play for a good while as there’s a bigger emphasis on documenting the life and times of directionless youth. It’s a choice that will likely test the patience of many — especially considering the characters’ repetitive lives and complete lack of ambition — but there’s some subtle, interesting work being laid out by the filmmaker here. The camera’s prying eye into their drug exploits feels extensive and even exploitative, generating a feeling of unease that continues to grow with every seemingly innocent get together. The capricious nature Banker employs (perspective and style change quite a bit alongside narrative jumps) shake things up as well, coating even the most mundane events with dread.
Focusing so much on the humdrum existence of James and his pack also gives the film its substance, a thing that many of these micro-budget genre films disregard in favor of inane, random peculiarity. He mentions more than once that he wants to have some sort of direction in his life, and the idea of going to school is tossed around quite a bit — of course, it’s only followed by more recreational drug use. When the shit finally hits the fan, the main character essentially loses his life as a result of his irresponsible day-to-day conduct, and Banker seems to be critiquing this carefree, extended-adolescence that he is indulging in. You can’t mooch off your family and screw around all day for the rest of your existence without some dire consequences.
As a first time feature director (he cut his teeth on “Walk Away Rene,” filmmaker Jonathan Caouette’s post-”Tarnation” output), Banker proves to be more than capable of delivering a solid, chilling movie, and “Toad Road” should digest well with those sick of mediocre horror flicks with little moxie. While it focuses on a subset of people that we’ve seen far too much in independent film, it brings some fresh perspective to the table — though to be perfectly honest, we’re looking forward to seeing this director use his talent on some different subjects next time around. Still, “Toad Road” is a pretty terrific debut — it’s a disturbing character study and a consistently absorbing film. [B]