Human existence is a fucked-up thing. It’s so fucked-up, in fact, that the hell of daily life – running that perpetual hamster wheel for a dangled carrot – long ago gave rise to religious and folkloric notions of an afterlife (since, c’mon, who doesn’t want to be reborn into a spirit-world where we sit on clouds and pluck harps for eternity?). No matter how bad things get while we inhabit this human form, the smallest (or greatest) assurance available is that of spiritual transcendence. That yes, one day, this cumbersome bag of meat, bone, and parts prone to disease, infection, and decay, will say “fuck it” and shut down. The sound of the soul exiting the body could very well be, “so long suckers, I’m finally outta here!”
No wonder people do drugs when they’re alive. In a way, the addicts of Toad Road are not unlike the religious types who seek redemption and release via unquestioning faith in an omniscient, all-powerful creator.
As I age, I find myself less frightened by monsters constructed out of latex than the questions of mortality and existence that worm their way into my mind. My taste in horror has shifted to find greater impact in films that take an analytical lens to the human condition, floating theories on the pros and cons that might await when we shuffle off this mortal coil.
That being said, the results of this subgenre tend to be mixed. Hellraiser and Martyrs did a good job of teasing greater philosophical themes beyond shock-show visuals; ditto From Beyond, which floated the notion of a parallel dimension just out of regular human sight. But then there’s stuff like Flatliners, where intriguing questions about life and death are raised and subsequently boiled down to the simplest possible explanations (“the afterlife is all about being haunted by your transgressions in life, so practice humility and forgiveness, and say no to death-simulating experiments, kids!”). While not horror, even Prometheus brought to mind the stale, surface-level Sunday-school lessons of a bygone era.
As an experience, Toad Road stands as one of the most unconventional and transporting horror films I’ve ever seen. Like Beyond the Black Rainbow, it is an attestation to the power and importance of aesthetics, a master’s class in experimentation, and a demonstration of how a seemingly improvised concept can consume and enrich characterization.
Written and directed by Jason Banker (who gave us the similarly-toned Felt), Toad Road recalls The Blair Witch Project in its handheld approach, its characters (everyone keeps their actual names), and the eerie authenticity of its presentation. It’s a real sign of success when a film that emulates the POV of an acid trip doesn’t feel sensationalized, contrived, or silly in the execution.
Some viewers will be turned off by the characters from the outset – mutual friends who play in a dead-end band in a dead-end town, and spend their nights getting blitzed on a buffet of mind-altering substances. Their conversations are fragmented, pseudo-intellectual babble on achieving higher consciousness through consumption, and it’s ironic that one of the only cohesive exchanges – presented in an unbroken dolly shot – is during daylight hours, as Sara (Anne Jones) and boyfriend James (Davidson) talk about turning their lives around, while en route to Toad Road – a place in the woods where 7 literal “gates” represent the passage through higher levels of existence…and hell. The remainder of the film follows James as his life spirals increasingly out of control, haunted by fragments of events that don’t coalesce as a whole in his drug-addled brain.
I had extreme deja vu upon discovering the film was set in York, Pennsylvania. As a York native, I remembered hearing about “Toad Road” from a friend (albeit in a different context – that the area was haunted by a witch), and thought Banker’s title was merely incidental. What impresses most, though, is the overall sense of dislocation – any identifiable landmarks are obfuscated throughout, so this could be any American small town. As a result, the experience of watching becomes more akin to an omniscient push than a conscious act.
When Sara and James drop acid and begin their trek through the woods, we are given brief explanations of what passage through each “gate” entails, with the seventh being a “black void…floating in the ultimate solitude.” If hell is repetition, then Banker has demonstrated a self-serving Purgatory that only grows more detached from any identifiable reality. There is an obligatory scene where James is questioned by a policeman, but it doesn’t serve the standard horror function: instead, it just reinforces that even the sober characters exist in an inconclusive vacuum.
Engagement with the film is contingent upon letting its distorted atmosphere take hold, so by default, Toad Road will alienate many. There are brief flashes of unspecified, context-free violence, but its oppressive, stomach-churning mood is what earns it the “horror” tag. Perhaps my watching it when I did was an instance of perfect timing. Lucio Fulci chronicled his own Gates of Hell saga in the 1980s (albeit in a more forthrightly macabre and violent manner), but Banker supplements those grisly efforts with a peek behind the curtain of the conundrums of human existence.
Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Toad Road is currently streaming on Shudder. It is also available on Blu-ray and DVD via online retailers.