I recently discovered that one of the more haunting films I’ve experienced in some time is available to stream via Shudder. 2012’s Toad Road, set in my home state of Pennsylvania, is rooted in urban legend, teenage angst and excess, and the sensibilities of filmmakers like Harmony Korine and Larry Clark. Part documentary, part horror/thriller, part teen drama, Toad Road is a mindfuck, a tense psychological genre bender, that is so wholly original that there are few worthwhile comparisons; the oft-used description of the film as a mashup of Spring Breakers and The Blair Witch Project isn’t totally offbase, but it’s not exactly on the money either. Ariel Esteban Cayer of Kier-La Janisse’s Spectacular Optical may have been more accurate stating that the film is “firmly standing somewhere between Adam Wingard’s Pop Skull and Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill,” however, to be fair, I’ve seen neither (though this comparison makes me want to see both).
Writer/director Jason Banker took a very unconventional approach when casting and writing this film. Rather than look for actors to fill specific roles, he hired a group of friends who enjoyed experimenting with drugs to play exaggerated versions of themselves. And to this crew of potheads, acid poppers, and shroom munchers, he injected his leading lady and based the plot around her discovering this drug fueled slacker existence the others were living for the first time in her life. The resulting drama and its related morality tale feels directly influenced by the 1995 Clark/Korine collaboration, Kids, perhaps with a touch less grime and edge. While Kids shined light on the AIDS epidemic through looking at the lives of several urban youth, Toad Road travel to the decidedly less urban York, Pennsylvania to spend time with a group of slackers with ultimately no real direction in their lives.
The major difference in the styles and themes of these two films is the interjection of an interwoven fantastical/supernatural element. There is an urban legend in the York area of a walking trail that features the literal Seven Gates of Hell. The belief is that if one is to cross through all seven, they are headed directly to Hell… no stopping at “Go!”, no collecting $200. This urban legend landmark was featured in Weird Pennsylvania (the full book spinoff of the Weird NJ magazine that explored its neighbor state) and it has, also been written about extensively for local papers and websites alike. In the film, it’s barely mentioned in passing in the first half, but as the female lead, Sara (Sara Anne Jones), becomes more engrossed in the drug laden lifestyle of the group of friends that her boyfriend, James (James Davidson), introduced her to, she becomes more and more drawn to the idea of going to these gates, known to some of the locals as “Toad Road”, while tripping on acid. She believes that some deep spiritual awakening will occur for her; she believe the gates do not lead to Hell, but “somewhere better”. Meanwhile, James is actually growing out of the drug filled portion of his life.
Of course, the blending of the already disturbing style of Clark/Korine storytelling emulated and the dark supernatural turn taken at the start of the third act is truly affecting. Yet, there is something even darker when you see how the lines between the real life of the teens and the plot of this film blur. Without fully spoiling the ending of the film (although this is the type of film where spoilers likely can’t truly ruin it), Sarah’s fate can easily be summarized as being ambiguous and unsure. In a drug induced haze, we don’t truly know what becomes of Sara… and such became her real life. Upon completing the film, Jones became more involved in the drug scene while focusing primarily on her writing. Friends note that she was haunted by her past, something hinted at in the character of Sara as well, and ultimately her real life ended just after the film premiered due to an overdose perceived to be accidental. Through her real life drug use, she seemed to be searching for something more, much like became her character’s primary motivation as the film forged on.
I’m not able to say for certain that this was necessarily a “good” film, but I can assure you that it has remained with me and will continue to haunt me for some time. Subtle moments in the film, the uncertainty of how the film ended, the sadness and confusion surrounding the death of the beautiful lead actress, the surreality in the fact that the film utilized the actors’ own household items, the questionable techniques used in filiming kids using real drugs, the online poetry collection of Jones haunting the Internet day after day, the accuracy and truth shown about the lives of so many small town kids, and the list goes on. The film just doesn’t leave me.
So, with that, I recommend you give this film a go. It won’t leave you feeling dirty like Bully or Trash Humpers, but it’s hard to miss the obvious similarities between Banker’s film and the works of Clark and Korine. What’s more is that the film manages to weave in the instrinsic questions about the afterlife that most drug films don’t tackle. It’s not going to blow you away with it’s often clunky camera work of virtually any technical details, but the film is as haunting as anything in recent memory.
In addition to Shudder, the film can be found on most VOD platforms or you can purchase the Artsploitation Films DVD or Blu-ray (MOD BD-R).