Judge Gordon Sullivan now has a fear of gates.
A different kind of horror film.
Though the phrase was originally used by William Blake, Aldous Huxley titled his book about his experiences with mescaline The Doors of Perception. It's an evocative phrase, one that clearly signals that perception, like a door, can be thrown open wide or closed abruptly. For Huxley, mescaline was one way to open those doors. The problem with the phrase, though, is that "doors" can be pretty generic. There are screen doors that barely keep out insects, wooden doors, steel doors, and the doors on a bank vault. All those different doors are designed to keep certain things in and out—the doors to our perception aren't terribly different. Which is another way of saying that when you open the doors of perception (with drugs, or meditation, or traumatic experience), you can never been sure what's on the other side. Toad Road is a horror movie allegory about the dangers of opening perceptions when something nasty lurks just out of view. It's going to be a tough sell to most viewers, but the patient will find an oddly affecting take on drugs and urban legends.
Facts of the Case
James (James Davidson) is a drugged-out slacker, living life from high to high. He likes to go to strange places (caves, river, fields) to get high with his group of friends. Sara (Sara Anne Jones), in contrast, has no experience with drugs. As she slowly befriends James, that changes. When the two encounter a local legend about the forest containing the Gates of Hell, their lives are changed completely.
One of the more interesting trends in indie filmmaking these days finds actors using their real names (or at least sharing a first name with their characters). Because digital filmmaking is so cheap (compared to shooting film), directors can now endlessly shoot their actors in any situation, allowing them to react naturally without worrying about the wrong name being used. This allows for the capturing of more "natural" moments, but also allows films to play around with what is or isn't "real."
Toad Road starts off like a bad documentary about the failures of suburban youth. Director Jason Banker found a real group of friends in Baltimore, and most of the film's first half hour is filled with shots of the group getting ridiculously high and messing around. We see nudity, wrestling, a game of "gay chicken" (which involves two guys going to kiss one another rather than driving cars at each other), and someone setting pubic hair on fire. It's a portrait of wasted youth that feels very much like some of Pedro Costa's work (especially In Vanda's Room). The air or reality is only reinforced by the knowledge that Sara Anne Jones died after the production from a heroin overdose.
Most directors would take that material and fashion out of it a drama in the vein of Kids or other films about the dangers of unsupervised, aimless youth. Instead, about halfway into the film's 76-minute narrative, Banker introduces a local legend: the Toad Road, a path in the forest adorned with gates that are said to be the Gates of Hell. Sara is immediately intrigued, despite James' protest. From this moment on, we're not sure if we're watching simple drugged-out visions of suburban paranoia, or if Sara and James are really being sucked into hell.
Taken on the level of allegory, the film is fairly transparent: opening the "doors of perception" can open the doors to something much nastier than happy dreams and visions of toadstool gnomes. The fact that Sara starts out as an innocent makes her journey feel especially fraught. If that were all the film had to offer, it would be a paltry film indeed. Instead, the film moves between these documentary style moments and the horror freak-outs with ease. Unlike the handwringing of The Blair Witch Project, which Toad Road undoubtedly owes a debt to, this film presents its horrors as of the same world as the characters; there's no sudden moments of panic-induced camera confessionals. Instead, the eerie shots of a character face-down in the snow which open the film seem totally unsurprising next to the shots of someone's pubes getting lit on fire. This gives the film a slow-burn heaviness that isn't obvious at first. This is a film that most viewers will find confusing or off-putting, at least initially, but the interplay between the "documentary" moments and the technologically enabled "visions" of the horrifying second half eventually sinks in. Even viewers who don't enjoy the film will likely find it hard to shake.
The DVD from Artsploitation is up to their usual standards. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer does a great job with the source material, much of it handheld DV footage. Considering the source, detail is great. Colors vary about due to shooting conditions, and black levels aren't reference quality. However, for a run-and-gun indie feature, the film looks good, especially in the more "psychedelic sequences." The stereo audio is similarly strong, with dialogue mostly audible throughout. It's far from reference quality as well, given the impromptu nature of much of the shooting, but the sound design overall is excellent.
Extras star with an audio commentary by director Jason Banker and much of his cast, including lead James Davidson, and the film's editor. It's a talky track that covers a lot of the background to the shooting of the film. We also get a behind-the-scenes featurette that's mostly footage from the shoot. There's also 11 minutes of deleted scenes, and audition tapes for the two leads. Short interview segments tell us a story of excessive drug us, as well as offering a tutorial on shotgunning a beer. Finally, the disc includes the film's trailer. There's also a booklet containing an introduction by Elijah Wood, and a short essay by Michael Tully.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I won't pretend that Toad Road is a fun film to sit through. The documentary footage is difficult—either because it doesn't move forward much with the narrative, or because it's uncomfortable to see people so obviously hurting themselves. Much like The Blair Witch Project, it's possible also for viewers to remain unconvinced by the "horror" of the second half, especially if they don't invest in these (admittedly) repugnant characters.
Toad Road is another in the burgeoning field of independent horror that owes as much to art house cinema as it does to the more obvious generic sources. Though it's not a film for everyone, those willing to see a mash-up of "documentary" style footage and horrifying visions of hell will find a film oddly difficult to let go of. The excellence of this Artsploitation release makes at least a rental easy to recommend.
Hellish, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Artsploitation Films
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