31 Days Of Hell: Toad Road

Now for a review of Toad Road, a little known found footage horror feature.

"Man, I hope I get to pee on a tree today.
That would be SO rad."
The urban legend known as the Seven Gates of Hell involves a wooded area of York County, Pennsylvania.  Anyone who traverses all seven invisible gates (only visible at night) in the woods will go straight to Hell in the end.  Supposedly it began with a mental institution located on Toad Road in Hellam Township where a fire broke out and claimed the lives of many of its patients, not unlike the fictionalized opening sequence in William Malone’s remake of House on Haunted Hill.  A pure myth which has already been debunked still remains the source of unending controversy involving both tourists and trespassers harassing local residents. 

Thus began the independently financed and released mumblegore horror package Toad Road, a film whose staying power is mostly derived from knowledge of the very real abuses that went into it.  Taken at face value, it’s mildly unsettling and moody with some docudrama cinematography and ethereal ambient music by Sigur Ros.  Upon reading into just how much of what unfolds was unsimulated with a very real drug induced death of its main actress, Sara Anne Jones, the film becomes a disturbing meditation on the Seven Gates of Hell as a metaphor for the depths of drug addiction. 

From the onset, Toad Road lies somewhere between Jackass and the aimless meandering characters in Harmony Korine’s Gummo.  Episodic, fragmented and a bit hazy in focus, the film follows a group of slackers who spend their daily lives getting high on drugs and alcohol. The worst of the bunch is James (James Davidson playing himself), a scruffy long haired hippie who saunters from one foggy fix to the next, either resulting in vomiting on himself or passing out too drunk to stop his giggling cronies from lighting his pubic and rectal hair on fire (yes, it’s shown).  Upon his meanderings, he meets Sara (Sara Anne Jones), a goody two-shoes college student intrigued by the possibilities of drug abuse who becomes obsessed with finding the Seven Gates of Hell. While this sounds like a conventional horror plot, Toad Road is really a formless byproduct of improvisation, documentary filmmaking and abstract editing.  Made with virtually no production values to speak of and a cast of nonprofessional actors basically being themselves, Toad Road can induce restlessness in some viewers for the first 75% of the picture.  Clearly steeped in unbridled reality with a real fist fight caught on camera and many scenes that would have been right at home on Intervention, it’s difficult to know where the film is going or why we should care.  But as it progresses and the Toad Road urban legend plays itself out, it’s startlingly unnerving.

"Damn it! Dentist screwed up again!"
Produced in part by Elijah Wood’s production company Spectrevision, Toad Road is a difficult and oddly tedious film to sit through despite only running 76 minutes in length.  If you thought The Blair Witch Project was nothing more than kids running around in the woods, you won’t get much difference here.  While the film absolutely is peppered with stylistic flourishes and presents a unique mixture of too-close-for-comfort reality and small town fantasy, it tends to chase its tail for the first half of the movie and thus wanes on the interest of most potential viewers.  Not to make light of the lead actress’s death, which indeed casts a heavy pall over the picture, but we’ve seen these dim witted slackers too many times before.  What’s more, the most disturbing horror shows about drug addiction which are Requiem for a Dream, Christiane F. and Trainspotting have already been made.  Harmony Korine made an entire career out of making films like this.  The premise of Toad Road as a journey into the heart of addiction is a unique and potentially horrific one.  The actual movie, while moody and occasionally transgressive with some undeniable reality happening before the camera, just tends to wander aimlessly.


-Andrew Kotwicki

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