Thursday, October 24, 2013

Toad Road: Hell Tripping

It seems like there are so many gateways to Hell, people must be accidentally dropping in all the time.  There is that stairway in Stull, Kansas, the portal in Amityville, and a Hellmouth in Cleveland (according to Buffy).  Supposedly, the Seven Gates of Hell are also located in York County, Pennsylvania, outside Hellam Township, logically enough.  A slacker and his formerly together girlfriend will get really high and head out in search of the urban legend in Jason Banker’s Toad Road (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

It is hard to understand why Sara, the studious college student, is attracted to the seriously under-achieving James, especially when the audience first spies him.  When he passes out dead drunk, his so-called friends commence with the sort of fun and games we really do not need to see. Nonetheless, James somehow seduces her into his world of hardcore drug use and chronic irresponsibility.  One pleasant summer day, they set out to find their kicks on Toad Road, the mythical forest byway that reportedly leads to the Seven Gates.  That sounds like a great idea, provided they drop acid first.

Naturally, things get a bit confused as they stagger about the woods.  Eventually, James comes to, shivering in snow.  While it only seems like a few hours have passed, James learns he and Sara have been missing for six months and he is now the primary suspect in her disappearance.

Although Toad is billed as a horror movie, the most terrifying aspect of the film is the state of the current twenty-nothing generation.  In all honesty, Banker really is not going for traditional genre scares.  He is more interested in the druggy, mind-trip he tries to approximate on-screen.  Indeed, watching Toad gives the sensation of some rather nasty chemical side-effects.  Still, his use of the Seven Gates mythos is metaphysically unsettling and frankly quite smart.  Toad actually becomes scarier as the memory unpacks it over time.  Unfortunately, many of the interpersonal scenes of James and his cronies serve as a vivid reminder of how annoying mumblecore can get.

Toad is almost guaranteed to inspire a strange cult following, especially in light of the tragic loss of lead actress Sara Anne Jones at the terribly young age of twenty-four.  Banker’s aesthetic choices are so hallucinatory it makes it difficult to thoroughly judge the film’s performances, but Jones had a real presence and never wilted amid his surreal excesses.

Banker and his co-cinematographers, Jack McVey and Jorge Torres-Torres give the picture a distinctive look that is eerily otherworldly yet still bleak and depressing.  This is the work of a zero-budget auteur, but it does not add up to very much fun.  Intriguing and maddening in equal measure, Toad Road is recommended for the most adventurous ten percent of cult film fandom’s bell curve.  It opens tomorrow (10/25) in New York at the Cinema Village.