Let's sweep the pills and coke powder off the table, pour the stale beer down the sink and open a window to let the bong reek clear a bit. Though this film is being marketed as "A different kind of American Independent horror film", it is, in fact, nothing of the sort. Well, I suppose it's American and independent, but this is no horror movie, and to claim otherwise isn't much more than a naked attempt to shoehorn a tale of extreme drug abuse into a genre where it does not belong. Though the movie is not, thank goodness, an explicitly found-footage effort, you may not benefit much from the distinction. In this context, 'independent' plainly means that the film creators couldn't afford a tripod, as nearly all the footage will be handheld by an operator suffering from episodic palsy. None of the actors have any professional credits beyond this film. Each portrays a character who will have the same name as their own. By this I mean Sara Anne Jones plays 'Sara', James Davidson plays 'James', Whitleigh Higuera plays 'Whitleigh', and so on. You may decide for yourself whether this lends art film gravitas.
Set in semi-rural Pennsylvania outside York, James runs with a younger crowd of wastrels who reel from one stupor to the next. None of the group appears to have any honest means of support. James himself will attend counseling sessions paid for by his father only so that Dad will continue to pick up his rent lest he be homeless. You will find little character development in the plot beyond Sara and James. At the twenty minute mark, I was reasonably sure that not one of the characters had actually referred to one another by name. I guess that's keeping-it-real, but it makes the viewer's task a bit challenging when one must begin keeping track of the players by mentally tagging them with place-holder identities such as 'Scruffy Guy 1' or 'Skinny Girl 2'.
James and his veteran crew of low-lifes are soon joined by the neophyte Sara, a younger and prettier girl than the repugnant James deserves. Sara's back story will be barely sketched in, but we are led to believe she was merely a wholesome girl come to York (that academic Mecca) to further her education. Having fallen in with James' group, however, her virtuous life is quickly derailed, and she will embrace the most powerful of psychedelics in a naive quest for Truth. Since we know nothing useful of Sara's character, it is difficult to comprehend why anyone with a future and beauty would voluntarily join up with James' repellent cohort. But, of course, this is the point. If you require real-life examples of wasted youth, simply spend an afternoon in your local County's drug court peanut gallery.
Principally this is a tale of drug abuse, and here the director does not skimp. Sara, James and the gang will convincingly snort crushed pills, drop acid, smoke weed, eat psilocybin mushrooms and find novel, perfectly appalling ways to abuse a Vicks nasal inhaler. Yuck. The 'Behind the Scenes' extra reveals, unsurprisingly, that the drug-taking is convincingly portrayed precisely because the actors are not faking it. Were the mushrooms actually dried shitakes? Are James' pupils the size of ebony dimes because he just arrived on set from his ophthalmologist visit? I dunno. Maybe it's just really superb acting, but we are clearly meant to think otherwise. Some scenes apparently abort because James' acid has kicked in and, instead of remembering his lines with Sara, he feels compelled to explain to Camera Guy how the perfectly mundane chest of drawers in front of him seems infinitely deep.
Compelled by some inner longing, Sara will push far past even James in her zest for the drug-induced Beyond. Conflict, if it can be called that, arises when James senses that the one good thing in his life, the beautiful Sara, is quickly slipping through his stained fingers. The 'Toad Road' is nothing more than a local bogey man's hollow, but she becomes obsessed with the promise of another world. Sara will drag the reluctant James to the spot in the woods via bicycle. Here she will drop acid on her tongue, kiss the unwitting James to share the dosage and seek the Seven Gates of Hell. Despite this extremely modest introduction of the occult, there will be no gates of Hell, no devil or demons, and no special effects. When James awakens later in the woods, Sara has simply vanished. For the balance of the film we will be shown flashes of a bloody Sara and glimpses of a blood-spattered James. Were these real memories or induced? He's interrogated by a detective, but, because her body will not be found, her fate and James' fractured memories will remain ambiguous. The movie opens with James face down in the snow and concludes with the same. These bookend scenes, however, never logically link with the main plot. The occult side-story has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and the experience is not shared by any other characters.
This film features extraordinary drug abuse with a weak side plot of horror loosely stapled to the story's main axis. You will find no terror here apart from vomiting drug users who will, in their depths, find the greatest amusement in burning the hair off one another's naked bums with a lighter or by snorting condoms up their noses. The liner notes, written by Spectrevision's Elijah Wood, assure us this is a cautionary tale of the terrors of drug abuse, and the gates of hell are, of course, a blunt metaphor for Sara's personal descent to oblivion. But as a cautionary tale the film fails as well because the cast is realistically depicted on and off-screen actually doing the drugs that wreak the damage in the first place.
The DVD cover art features laurel leaf clusters connoting the prestige of awards. Though printed in a microscopic font, your reviewer was able to just make out a Best Picture nod from the 2012 Lausanne Underground Film and Music Festival. Of course, a bit of research shows there were but five film entries at the event, but who wouldn't want a trip to Switzerland on Elijah Wood's nickel? The other two awards were bestowed by the 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival held in Montreal. Though grouped by genre, this festival corrals both feature films and shorts, several as brief as a single minute. But there are well over 100 feature films listed for the 2012 event (I stopped counting at the letter "M"). A lineup that large cannot possibly be reviewed by any jury. How Toad Road walked off with Best Director and Best Actor shall remain an enigma.
That isn't to say that this film is unwatchable. At 76 minutes, the pace does not drag. I did not feel the compulsion at any point to hit 'fast forward'. But the movie, I am afraid, does not have a watchable merit for reasons of plot, production values or fine acting. Rather, it holds the fascination that we all have when we pass a particularly nasty car accident. Watching a human disaster unfold provokes that ancestral simian rubber-necking instinct. You just can't help but tap the brakes and stare.