“I met a guy once who told me about a place that contained the seven gates that lead to hell…I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.”
That dreamy, if eerie, statement is the introduction to Toad Road, the indie horror flick released in 2012 by writer and director Jason Banker. Toad Road is essentially the tale of two people coming from opposite directions in life and getting caught on a path they can’t get off.
The film starts off with the camera randomly following main character James (James Davidson) around as he hangs out and gets high with his York, Penn.-based gang of friends. Horsing around, playing music, and casual hookups seem to be the norm for this particular group. None of them seem have much in the way of maturity, to put it mildly; nor do they have jobs, money, or seemingly any larger plans for life. What they do have is an enthusiastic love of any recreational drug available. Mushrooms, acid, ecstasy, and even Vicks all make appearances in Toad Road.
If this sounds like a problematic lifestyle, well, it is, as evidenced by James’ visits to a therapist to discuss his life and particularly his relationships with others – only because his father won’t continue to pay his rent if he doesn’t.
The only person in this film that seems to have life together at all is college student Sara (Sara Anne Jones), the requisite good girl, who politely declines all drug offers. Toad Road only comes up when James casually mentions it to her during the middle of a conversation explaining the pitfalls of living in a drug-induced haze.
What happens on Toad Road, with its seven gates to hell?? At the first gate, you start feeling like things are watching you, at the second one you start hearing things, at the third gate you start seeing things, at the fourth you pass out, and no one has gotten past the fifth. Sara is intrigued and wants to go there, but James dismisses the idea, chalking the road up as “the man in the mirror,” a local urban legend and nothing more.
As the film progresses, Sara starts taking drugs too and seems to be spiraling into addiction. But for her, taking drugs isn’t just about getting high, it’s about something deeper and more intellectual, and as she later tells James, she thinks that whatever is at the end of Toad Road, it isn’t hell but “something better.” On top of that, relationship issues enter the mix, with Sara also seeing Whitleigh, another guy in the group, while also sleeping with James.
For much of the film, I wasn’t even sure if viewers were actually going to see the mythical Toad Road, so much as hear about it. But James and Sara eventually do start to walk down it, with Sara tricking James – who’s not entirely on board with being there – into taking acid as their journey begins. Despite all the creepy things that are reported to be seen on the road, probably due to the low budget, viewers won’t actually see too much, other than some minor special effects. I didn’t realize anything was happening at all, until the seasons started to change. But the idea of Toad Road is disturbing enough, and it’s what we aren’t shown that adds to the horror.
At some point, presumably past gate four, James passes out and wakes up with no memory of what happened, and when he walks back to town, he’s told that he and Sara went missing months ago – when he thinks they’ve only been gone several hours. The latter half of the film focuses on his mental deterioration as he hides out from the cops, angry, depressed, and seemingly haunted by images of a bloody Sara. Occasionally, her voice narrates what happens after reaching the later gates, leaving one to wonder just how far James really got on Toad Road. The last shots are of him waking up in the woods again and shouting Sara’s name out into the winter stillness as he searches for her.
To add to the sadness and mystery of Sara’s disappearance in the film, the end credits start with a dedication to the memory of her, prompting me to find out that she actually, tragically, died after this film’s production, from a heroin overdose. I also found out that none of the characters in the film were professional actors and were all playing themselves.
One has to give Banker a lot of props for his creativity in producing this film, especially with people who aren’t actually actors. He chose the right group of friends though as they all gave the film a lot of personality.
With that said, Toad Road isn’t a perfect film by any means, my primary criticism being that I was never sure just what kind of the film I was watching. Is Toad Road a horror movie, a drug movie, or a relationship movie? Take your pick, because it can be all three. Scenes also jump around and it’s not the easiest film to follow.
Still, I enjoyed it a lot. It’s not just a film about a scary road to hell, but a wistful, sad look at young love and the paths people choose in life. If you want to see a movie where everything is wrapped up neatly at the end, this isn’t one of them. If you are, however, appreciative of the horror film that is on the intelligent side and can make you think, Toad Road is well worth the watch.
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