Studio: Artsploitation Films
Director: Jason Banker
Writer: Jason Banker
Producer: Jason Banker, Liz Levine, Adrian Salpeter
Stars: James Davidson, Sara Anne Jones, Whitleigh Higuera, Jamie Siebold, Scott Rader, Donnie Simmons, Sarah Joelle Hildebrand
The empty lifestyles of several young drug addicts take a turn for the worse when one of them goes missing along a supposedly haunted forest trail.
Urban legend has it that the woods off Trout Run Road in the Hellam Township of Pennsylvania’s York County are home to the Seven Gates of Hell. While only one gate is visible in daylight, the others are said to appear after darkness falls. Finding and passing through each gate, whether they are literal or figurative, opens a new doorway to madness. Although no one has ever survived past the fifth gate, the belief is that the mouth of Hell itself lies beyond the seventh portal.
Were that not evil enough, another popular rumor speaks of an insane asylum in the remote area that burned to the ground centuries ago and took all of the inmates with it. More modern myths whisper of devil worshippers and Satanic sacrifices within the trees.
These are the types of folktales that are good for curing the boredom of local teenagers, but not so good for property owners pestered by vandals and drunk daredevils. These stories could also make perfect fodder for a “based on a true story” horror film. After all, tales of Trout Run Road contain both of the two most overused ingredients for the “found footage” formula: sinister woods and a haunted mental hospital.
Rest assured that despite employing a pseudo-documentary approach to establishing its characters, “Toad Road” is not “found footage.” In fact, it only loosely qualifies as a horror movie. More than anything, “Toad Road” is a dark drug addiction drama that plays better as an instructional video on how to pointlessly throw away your twenties.
James is a likable enough, yet stereotypically unkempt slacker whose daily To-Do list changes only according to the order in which he partakes in what drugs. As James half-heartedly struggles with the possibility of adding meaning to his empty habits, his girlfriend Sara veers the opposite way. The deeper she immerses herself as a neophyte in the drug culture of James and his friends, the more she wants to experience. Mirroring her mental journey is the physical one she wishes to take concurrently, by joining the trip in her mind with one beneath her feet through the fabled Seven Gates of Hell.
Without an affinity for the senseless behavior of college-age junkies, chances are that contempt or apathy will be the two likeliest emotional responses to the onscreen portrayals. This has less to do with being unable to relate to the characters and more to do with not wanting to.
“Toad Road” is a 75-minute montage of drug-addicted slackers dropping acid, popping pills, eating mushrooms, shotgunning beers, snorting crushed Adderall, taking bong hits, and blowing Vick’s vapor inhaler medicine into each other’s eyeballs. Once their brains are perfectly pickled, fried, and otherwise obliterated, activities progress to playing a game of “gay chicken,” extinguishing cigarettes on nipples, snorting a condom through the nose and out the mouth, lighting one another’s pubic hairs on fire, and willingly taking punches in the face from random strangers.
“Toad Road” is not sure where its story, or any sensible movie at all for that matter, exists in this footage. Somewhere in the strained connection being made with the Hellam Township legend exists a prime opportunity for a metaphor paralleling a figurative journey through Hell. “Toad Road” is too busy getting high on false arthouse importance to find that particular gate. The lifestyles of these friends, connected mostly by a mutual appreciation for mind-altering chemicals, possess too little substance to be put on a path of spiritual redemption or a transformative journey.
Writer/director Jason Banker takes his documentary footage of stoners getting stoned and frames it with a loose fictional premise as a Hail Mary hope that a narrative will manifest itself. “Toad Road” has a delivery so vague that it expects the audience to infer a meaning on its own by assuming the disjointed rambling is intentional. The notion is not unlike Sara’s plan to stumble along Toad Road while on LSD. “Toad Road” similarly assumes it can hand itself over to an artificial state of mind, wander an unmarked footpath, and cross its fingers that something will take shape by the time it reaches the end. It doesn’t.
Review Score: 30