Those itching for a new horror movie might find some relief with “The Toll”, a Canadian horror flick written and directed by Michael Nader (his feature film debut). “The Toll” is an exercise in unadulterated love for horror, pulling inspiration from every end of the genre. Nader will have you thinking of everything from “Poltergeist” to “The Slender Man”; from “The Shining” to “The Blair Witch Project”. Seeing those influences on screen is fun in itself. The problems come with the movie’s shaky execution of its own ideas.
Despite some logic-defying cracks the movie’s opening 30 minutes are easily its best. It begins with a rideshare driver named Spencer (Max Topplin) swiping through his Uber-like phone app looking for his next passenger. He passes over a hipster and a middle-aged guy to choose Cami (Jordan Hayes), a young woman at the Detroit airport just off of a delayed late night flight. She’s in town to visit her divorced father and instead of bothering him to pick her up she hops in the car with a strange guy in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe not the best example of decision-making but delayed flight, frustration, exhaustion, all that stuff so we’ll give her a pass.
Spencer swings into the airport, picks up Cami, and then sets out for a long drive to her father’s house well outside of the city. During the drive Nader does a good job making us as uncomfortable as Cami. That’s because Spencer comes off as a creep, making awkward small talk, asking prying questions, and attempting jokes that no socially cognitive person would ever try. At the same time Spencer is never overtly aggressive or threatening. So the question becomes is he really dangerous or is the movie intentionally trying to throw us off.
*Note to all horror movie characters: If you use a GPS expect bad things to happen. That’s definitely the case here. Spencer follows his GPS down a gravel road that winds through a dense forest. Suddenly his phone zaps out and his car dies. An apprehensive Cami thinks it’s all an act while Spencer swears to the contrary. Aside from the eerie things that begin happening in the woods around them, Nader keeps the suspicion and mistrust between his two stranded characters his focal point. At least until a creepy old lady on a tractor pulls up and tells them they have been marked by a schlocky terror called the Toll Man. And the only way off his road is to pay him…in blood.
You would think this would lead to some meaty horror mythology where we learn of the Toll Man, his background, his motivations, etc. But actually we get none of that. Instead we just see the tall, slender, pointy-fingered being with a bag over his head terrorizing Cami and Spencer, mostly through life-like visions that poke at past traumas. Heavy references to suicide, child abuse, rape, and victim-shaming all come up but not in a way that adds much weight to either character. Just as a way to prod Cami and Spencer and drive them to do the Toll Man’s bidding. Meanwhile the poorly defined Toll Man himself is left as this ambiguous nothing. He and his minions have the horror movie look, but I never understood them or their existence.
One thing “The Toll” does really well is create atmosphere. The genre has already established that ‘nighttime in the woods’ is a great horror setting. Nader knows this and utilizes it to great effect. His camera choices and especially his strategic use of lighting give the film an uneasy kick. Unfortunately it’s the story that runs out of gas right when it should be picking up. The intro is tense and suspenseful, but by the end it’s inability to sell or even explain its big baddie left me questioning the point of the entire second half. “The Toll” is now streaming on VOD.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS