Presented by Elijah Wood’s production company SpectreVision, Jason Banker’s Toad Road is a bit hard to label. It’s a drug film, a faux documentary film, and at times, a psychedelic reality-bending thriller. Sara Anne Jones and James Davidson play a couple who meet at a crucial crossroads in their lives; Sara is beginning her journey into substance exploration as James is looking to end his. One night he tells her the story of Toad Road, a fabled passage in the woods of Pennsylvania that one may discover in a drug induced state, leading through seven door-like openings into hell. Sara becomes fixated on the legend, convinced that she can travel the road further than anyone who claims to have found it has before. The characters share their names with those who play them and the primarily non-actor cast parties as they may have without a camera, blurring the lines between the real and the fiction of the story. With its organic aesthetic and settings, Toad Road is about as much a horror film as Evan Glodell’s Bellflower is, but it will appeal to genre fans with a sense of adventure and the gift of patience.
The first half of the film is the most difficult unless you are simply enthralled by the basics of drug culture. You’ll spend half an hour watching a group of 20 somethings in the rural areas of their small town experimenting with acid, mushrooms, and other psychedelics, bickering, fooling around, and stripping. Around the middle is when it actually begins to get interesting, as Sara begins to obsess over the idea that her use of drugs is actually a means of self actualization and something much deeper than merely getting high. She and James begin to diverge ideologically as he begins to see the world in a new light and consider the value of a sober life. Despite seeming ridiculous, Sara’s insistence on exploring the legend of Toad Road is what gives the film the iota of substance it has.
Toad Road’s attempt to tie itself to the reality of drug culture is really its downfall, as the Toad Road legend is fascinating on a conceptual level and has all the makings of a great story — as any legend with staying power should. The choice to focus more directly on the drug usage of the group instead of Sara’s obsession with the legend is disappointing, but does provide a unique atmosphere of eerie realness for the point at which that aspect of the story takes control. It’s also interesting to view the film as a subtextual story of determination, making a decision and sticking to your guns, no matter how crazy things begin to seem. Sara’s faith in the legend and her drug use may be baffling to us as the viewer, but her insistence to move forward does drive the film to a strange conclusion.
The film’s visuals, murky and naturalistic, are well done. Adding to this, the sound design of Toad Road is somewhat beautiful; watching the documentary style footage, the audio will be at the back of your mind, until it subtly worms its way into the foreground and steals all of your attention. At a specific point in the film I had to pause the DVD, beginning to believe the noise wasn’t emanating from my TV but a storm of electrical buzz was actually coming from my own living room. It was not, but it goes to show how the film does manage to play with your consciousness.
Watching the special features on the Toad Road DVD, it becomes apparent very quickly that almost all the drug use in the movie was real. The behind the scenes featurette is almost indistinguishable from the footage of the film itself, except for when the actors speak to the camera, or a member of the crew appears on screen. In “DUI Story”, one of the actresses tells a story about being thrown in jail for a small amount of weed after the driver of the car she was in was arrested for a DUI. Other features include the audition tape of the two leads, instructions on how to shotgun a beer from members of the cast, plenty of trailers, and a commentary with director Jason Banker, actors James Davidson, Jamie Seibold, Scott Rader, and Editor/Cameraman Jorge Torres-Torres.
Toad Road is available now on VOD and DVD, released by Kino Lober under their Artsploitation label.