Studio: Saban Films
Director: Michael Nader
Writer: Michael Nader
Producer: Max Topplin, Jordan Hayes, William Day Frank
Stars: Jordan Hayes, Max Topplin, James McGowan, Rosemary Dunsmore
An odd rideshare driver and his suspicious passenger encounter supernatural terror when they become stranded on a remote forest road.
¡°The Toll¡± opens with Spencer, a rideshare driver, picking up his jetlagged passenger Cami at an airport. Cami is in town to visit her divorced father at his remote ranch in the boonies. With a long late night drive ahead of them, Spencer tries to make small talk, which doesn¡¯t go over smoothly since Spencer has no radar for reading a room and seems socially stunted to say the least.
I can easily picture antsy viewers starting to snore at the couple¡¯s early interactions, which are initially as cursory as any average conversation with an Uber driver everyone forgets on a regular basis. But the 95% ordinary dialogue spiked with 5% of ¡°wait, what did he just say?¡± weirdness sets up a dynamite dynamic that separates ¡°The Toll¡¯s¡± suspense from typical ¡°trapped in a forest¡± thrillers.
Ordinarily, I¡¯m suspicious of indie films where the producers are also the stars. In this exception to the ¡®cheap vanity project¡¯ rule, Jordan Hayes and Max Topplin are genuinely great choices for the personalities they portray. Fat-free characterizations keep Cami and Spencer from being overblown ¡°movie¡± alter egos. They read like real people, yet Hayes and Topplin also carry the cut of experienced professionals, not newbies playing make-believe. Together they toe a terrific line between ¡°authentic¡± and ¡°acting¡± so you¡¯re not distracted toward either direction of them feeling too phony or like they¡¯re directly out of a dull documentary.
Discourse between Cami and Spencer doesn¡¯t draw attention to itself by being written with flowery vibrancy in mind. There¡¯s naturalness to the way they go through preapproved motions of how a driver and a rider are expected to interact with one another. Due to the cautious chemistry between them, ¡°The Toll¡± ends up illustrating how the inherent oddness of entrusting your safety to a stranger can be alternately confusing and frightening, no matter which seat someone sits in.
At first glance, Spencer presents a disarming demeanor that¡¯s vaguely dorky. Immediate warning bells barely ring. So when he casually mentions to Cami that he likes her profile picture, his comment comes off as being a bumble from an awkward guy who means no harm. Maybe Spencer doesn¡¯t possess the common sense to see he makes Cami uncomfortable. Then the camera counters by flipping to the backseat where we¡¯re reminded that Cami is a woman alone in the middle of nowhere with a man she doesn¡¯t know. Recognizing the reality of Cami¡¯s situation, hackles suddenly raise in sympathetic solidarity.
Uncertain tension continues tightening in this fashion, yet the movie routinely throws doubt on insidious insinuations so everyone on both sides of the screen isn¡¯t sure what to be wary of. Even Cami starts texting her dad that she thinks her driver is ¡°terrifying,¡± reconsiders, then replaces those words to identify Spencer as merely ¡°weird.¡± Once again though, Spencer will say something like, ¡°I should take you hunting sometime,¡± which is an alarming proposal on multiple levels of inappropriateness. But because ¡°The Toll¡± is still in its establishing phase, and we aren¡¯t certain where the story plans to take us, we can¡¯t quite tell if Spencer is a true threat or only a misguided misfit who doesn¡¯t ¡°get it¡± and can¡¯t talk to women.
The nervous push-pull between this peculiar pair shows its full value when Cami and Spencer encounter a potentially greater peril, and one that¡¯s seemingly ghostlike in nature. After taking a turn down a dark road, Spencer¡¯s GPS drops out, he nearly hits an ominous figure who mysteriously vanishes, and his car inexplicably stalls. Cami worries Spencer led her into some sort of trap, which Spencer points out isn¡¯t possible since she input her destination after he picked up her fare. It isn¡¯t until they receive strange messages and discover they¡¯re stuck in a geographic loop that Spencer and Cami learn they are at the mercy of The Toll Man, a burlap-masked phantom who requires blood payment to travel down his road.
Horror fans have seen so much of this before. Stranded in the woods. Wandering in supernatural circles. Urban legends. What¡¯s unique about ¡°The Toll¡¯s¡± take on these terrors is how the uneasy relationship between Cami and Spencer influences their experience. Each of them thinks they are dealing with different dangers and to a degree, they are. Cami believes Spencer could still be a stalker. Spencer remains somewhat oblivious to Cami¡¯s worries, yet starts sensing he has to handle her delicately while sorting their paranormal problem. Both of their minds race with maddening possibilities yet neither one of them can fully trust the other person despite it looking like they are in their predicament together.
Instead of being empty vessels who only run, scream, and react to external threats pushing a pat plot, Cami and Spencer have a lot going on in their heads. Some of their fears we know about, some of them we don¡¯t. By layering multiple mysteries regarding true motives and identities on top of otherworldly evil, ¡°The Toll¡± ingeniously adds more mileage to an otherwise streamlined thriller that¡¯s only 75 minutes and mainly features two people in one location. ¡°The Toll¡± could have been redundantly hollow horror, but Cami and Spencer¡¯s awkward alliance makes the movie much more intriguing than that.
On the not-so-hot side, ¡°The Toll¡± gets a bit trope-y. In addition to some of its formulaic forest-set frights, a rickety twist makes the final few minutes wobble weirdly. The Toll Man turns out to be talked about far more than he¡¯s seen too. His screen time may not even amount to 10 seconds, so don¡¯t expect ¡°next horror icon¡± franchise status. The titular boogeyman is easier to take than ¡°Old Lady Exposition¡± though, who conveniently breezes in just long enough to barf up background Cami and Spencer couldn¡¯t get through more realistic means.
When it comes to clich¨¦s, ¡°The Toll¡± doesn¡¯t do everything by the book. Jump scares are included in spare instances. But I was particularly appreciative of a shadow passing in front of the lens that was NOT accompanied by a loud audio sting for a change. ¡°The Toll¡± recognizes that its ample atmosphere effectively conveys eeriness, and artificial pops are often unnecessary.
Jordan Hayes and Max Topplin keep ¡°The Toll¡¯s¡± battery fully charged while writer/director Michael Nader dunks his film in relentless dread and refuses to let it come up for air. Every single scene takes place at night, so there¡¯s a constant sense of being enveloped in inescapable darkness. It¡¯s a subtly unsettling feeling that¡¯s impossible to shake as ¡°The Toll¡± keeps its chill-inducing creeps coming. Without actually being a throwback film, ¡°The Toll¡± throws things back to a time in horror when simple scares were more than enough to satisfy.
Review Score: 75