I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
The cancellation of South by Southwest this year has hurt many independent films and filmmakers who depend on the festival’s hype to launch sales and a release. It was one of the first major events to be swept up in concerns over the spread of COVID-19. After the City of Austin declared a local disaster and shut down the annual, week-long occasion, questions of what it could all mean flooded in: Will they reschedule? What happens to all the films that were supposed to screen?
Fortunately, since the festival’s cancellation, opportunities have been made available to catch some film titles that didn’t get to hold their world premieres. Some are heading to digital platforms in the coming weeks, while others screened in various regions before movie theaters were advised to take an intermission due to the coronavirus.
Over the weekend, Alamo Drafthouse locations in Austin and Los Angeles held a private screening for filmgoers to see THE TOLL. This new horror film was originally slated to screen in the midnight section at SXSW on Mar. 15. At the exclusive event, attendees were introduced to the movie by its filmmaker. They were later given a chance to discuss the material at its post-screening question-and-answer session with select cast and crew members.
THE TOLL, written and directed by Michael Nader (writer of 2018’s HEAD COUNT), has a unique premise that feels like an accumulation of many great horror ingredients. There are traces of the trippy hallucinations from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the nonsensical geography of THE SHINING, the deep woods spooks of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and the real-world terror faced by many victims of trauma. There is even a healthy dose of urban folklore to supply a nice plate of simplicity and hold it all together.
As much tension and horror brilliance that is conjured up during its first fraction, THE TOLL begins to become too complicated for its own good by its end. Despite its shortcomings, Nader’s film has big scares and a frightening supernatural terrorizer to warrant multiple sequels.
The story begins with a rideshare service driver, Spencer (Max Topplin of 2013’s CARRIE), swiping through potential customers before landing on Cami (a terrific Jordan Hayes of the Syfy series HELIX). Over the opening credits, the mysterious driver (who is not entirely seen until about 10 minutes in) proceeds to pick up Cami at an airport while listening to a music track by Lance Lipinsky, a 1950s and ‘60s influenced singer. It’s precisely the kind of song to bring you into an uneasy tone and call to mind a scene featuring a masked killer playing a game of cat-and-mouse in another horror movie (a la YOU’RE NEXT or THE STRANGERS).
Spencer picks up an exhausted Cami to drive her a great distance to her father’s house, virtually two clicks past the wardrobe in Narnia. However, eighty-six the pretty white snow and jolly ol’ Mr. Tumnus and instead serve a one-way ticket down a road to hell. After Cami and Spencer have a lovely conversation about bow and arrow hunting (given off a strong vibe akin to the limo drive with Lloyd Christmas and Mary Swanson in DUMB AND DUMBER), somebody appears in the middle of a dark country road and suddenly vanishes. Confused and scared, Spencer circles the car to find nothing, and they (like any sensible person would) decide to leave the situation in the rearview. But as they try to go, the car battery dies along with their phones. They are forced to face the evil that lurks in the woods, known simply as the Toll Man.
THE TOLL plays like a hair-rising campfire story about urban legends, or an appetizing Stephen King short story. It has most of what any good psychological thriller needs to require an arm-grabbing buddy. Nader provides an organic buildup to the narrative that gives it a solid foundation. The car ride conversation at the story’s front is relatable to anyone who has ever hopped into a late-night Uber or Lyft and had a driver who was just a little bit left of center. You know the type – the ones who ask personal questions or make uncomfortable comments.
In THE TOLL, Spencer mentions Cami’s app profile picture and how good she looks in it, which then causes her to slowly pull a can of pepper spray out of her purse – thus making us feel just as suspicious about Spencer’s behavior as Cami. Is he a creep? Did he plan this all along? Or, do we have an unreliable character in Cami? Lots of questions that keep your eyes fixed on Nader’s journey.
Once the viewer receives its first jolt of terror from the Toll Man, we slip into more dread-filled situations. For a good chunk of it, the characters pass the human intelligence test. They make logical decisions that don’t always send your hands in the air, wondering what the hell they are doing. You may scratch your head over Cami taking a nap while in the company of a stranger (and while having a particular past) or why the two characters don’t seem to observe their surroundings as much as they should. But nothing too much that will cause you to take the U-turn path.
The real problem comes in later when details are revealed. Background stories surface and are heavy-handed. Although stylistically appealing in their illustration, they don’t quite match the natural flow of the rest of the film and feel shoehorned in to give the story more significance, like a Jordan Peele horror movie. Its heart is in the right place, but the pieces don’t all fit. If the film had omitted one scene, in particular, and kept from taking a few detours, this would be a perfect piece of midnight popcorn.
Warts and all, THE TOLL is adequate horror entertainment. There are wonderfully committed performances, fun and interactive mind games, and enough nightmare fuel to leave the lights on during bedtime. Let us hope Nader makes more of these films to expand the mythology and iron out the narrative kinks.
THE TOLL is currently seeking distribution. We will keep you posted on any release news or other screening opportunities.