Michael Nader wrote the script for one of the more interesting and overlooked monster films of the last couple of years, Head Count. Now he’s back with The Toll, which he not only wrote but is the first feature he’s directed after several shorts.
The Toll is the latest entry in the rideshare from hell genre that includes the likes of Spree, Fox Hunt Drive and Driven. And like the last of those films, this one has a supernatural edge to it that separates it from the majority of these films which rely exclusively on all to human monsters.
Cami (Jordan Hayes, Helix, Exit Humanity) has had a long, delay filled day of travelling. She just wants her driver Spencer (Max Topplin, Carrie, Suits) to get her to her father’s place in the middle of nowhere. He turns out to be equal parts awkward and creepy which, along with his taking what he says is a shortcut, makes her uneasy. Before the night is over she’ll have a lot more to worry about.
As Spencer is trying to deal with his suddenly dead phone he hits a figure standing in the road. At least they think he did, there’s no body to be found. Regardless, the car won’t start and their attempt to go for help on foot brings them back to the car. They’re in the domain of The Toll Man (Daniel Harroch) who demands payment of a life for use of his road. For either of them to live, the other must die.
If every bit of publicity for The Toll didn’t make it clear it was a supernatural film you would be convinced that we were going to spend the film watching Spencer stalk Cami through the woods. He even happens to have a bow in his car because he hunts. What does he hunt? His answer, “Deer…humans”, doesn’t sound as funny as he thinks it does.
The Toll is a bit of a slow burn with the buildup of Spencer, road signs appearing where they weren’t a few minutes ago, etc. Most of the first half of the film’s seventy-eight minutes are filled with atmosphere and a sense of dread punctuated by a couple of nicely timed scares.
The film examines what it’s like to live after trauma, to live with anxiety – how do you know when that sudden needling fear is just another false alarm from your brain, or if it’s an instinct that must be listened to or you’ll die?Michael Nader
That includes Lorraine (Rosemary Dunsmore, Orphan Black, Red: Werewolf Hunter) who serves as an obvious, but unsettling, information dump. I do wish her character had been better integrated into the plot. And that we could have gotten a bit more of a backstory or origin for The Toll Man.
The film takes another turn once its boogeyman turns up. He can get inside people’s heads, and unleash hallucinations based on their fears. This in and of itself isn’t anything new, see Phobias and Sacrilege for two recent examples.
What The Toll does is contrast the fears she would understandably be carrying from her past with what’s happening now. Her fears of being in a lonely place with a strange man versus fears of whatever is in the woods. Nader goes as far as referring to the film as a “social thriller in the tradition of Get Out” in the director’s statement but that’s a comparison that doesn’t do his film any favours.
There is a message here, but it’s neither as central to the film nor as strong as the one in Peel’s film. What The Toll is, and should be described as such, is a very effective horror film with some depth and subtext to it.
Saban Films’ The Toll opens in theaters, On Demand and Digital on Friday, March 26th. You can check their Facebook page for more information.