It's a bit of a stretch to describe Toad Road as a horror movie, at least in the traditional sense. There's very little blood, no gore and none of the standard horror film clichés. But it does create a convincing sense of disquiet and dread, and a feeling of unreality pervades it that keeps the audience off balance.
James (James Davidson) is something of a slacker: a heavy recreational drug user whose father refuses to support him anymore unless he enters therapy, which he does grudgingly. He'd much rather party with his friends, drop acid and eat mushrooms. His outlook on life changes a bit when the innocent Sara (Sara Anne Jones) joins the group, and starts taking tentative steps into the drug culture. As Sara becomes more and more enamored with hallucinogens as a gateway to an expanded consciousness, James becomes more discontent with the culture, and protective of Sara, with whom he's started a romantic (though somewhat open) relationship.
Soon, Sara decides that her wider awareness needs one more experience to truly break open. She needs to travel down Toad Road. Toad Road is a local urban legend in York, Pennsylvania. The road runs through the grounds of an old mental institution, and has long since gone to seed. It's rumored to contain the seven gates to hell, and to affect in profound ways those who travel down it. Sara finally convinces James to take her there, though he is very resistant. Once they go, things are not the same.
Toad Road is told in an impressionistic way, jumping backward and forward in time and location, much like we might recall a distant memory, in fits and starts. It's an experiential film, much more concerned with evoking moods and drawing sharp characters than with narrative as such. The viewer gets the idea of the total story, but has to expend some effort piecing it all together.
The most impressive thing about the film is its very realistic depiction of the American middle class drug culture. It is able to do this, apparently, by employing drug users as actors who actually used drugs on set during filming, if the commentary and extras are to be believed, anyway. Regardless of how they achieved it, many viewers will be able to recognize characters and incidents from their own perhaps less than savory pasts.
The performances are all totally naturalistic, and not affected in the least. There really aren't any false notes at all, but Jones and Davidson are clear standouts, able to express complex emotions and evoke a very distinct culture and its mores. They also have a very good chemistry together, letting only hints through about the pain and deadness that lurk below the surface.
In many ways, Toad Road is an unsatisfying film, and is likely intended to be so. There's no real resolution to the central mystery, and much of the film is left ambiguous, as real life often is. It is a very well-crafted film, however, and seems to have exactly the effect its producers intend. It's hallucinatory and affecting and subtle. Highly recommended.
The video is 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks quite good. It's filmed in a sort of faux found footage style, that is all hand held cameras, with the look of one of the characters filming, when this isn't really the case. Much of the film is dark, but there are also deep colors and subtle gradations of lights and shadow.
Audio is Dolby digital 2 channel, and sounds good, but isn't asked to accomplish much. No hiss or other problem can be heard, and the dialogue is always audible. English subtitles are included, but no alternate language track.
A number of extras are included. They are:
Just over eleven minutes of deleted scenes, presumably cut for time or flow. Nothing dramatic, but some awkward stuff between James and Sara.
Behind the Scenes
Thirteen minutes of behind the scenes footage, including outtakes (a cell phone ringing during a scene), talking about tripping on mushrooms, etc. Fairly interesting.
A girl, who may have had a small acting role in the film, recounts a truly crazy story of being busted for marijuana possession after her boyfriend gets a DUI, and spending some time in jail. Bizarre, but very interesting.
James and Sara Audition
James and Sara's audition scene for the film.
Shotgun a Beer
James demonstrates the proper way to shotgun a beer.
Trailers are included for Animals, Clip, Hemel and Vanishing Waves.
Audio Commentary with Jason Banker, James Davidson, Jamie Siebold, Scott Rader and Jorge Torres-Torres
This is the most substantial extra, and the discussion between director Banker and the others is mostly lively and interesting, though there are some moments of quiet when they get pulled into the film. There are a lot of set anecdotes, such as them shooting next to a gun range and having to shot in between volleys of gunfire, or James getting a black eye from a bar fight the night before a shoot, and only being able to be shot from one side. This is a pretty engaging group.
Toad Road is a film that will appeal to a particular sort of viewer. Those craving arterial spray, graphic violence or loads of sex will have to look elsewhere. Those who relish a thoughtful yet disturbing film, that isn't prepared to lay all the answers out neatly, will have a lot to enjoy here. Writer / director Jason Banker has crafted an engaging film that defies easy categorization. Check it out.