Michael Nader’s The Toll straddles the line of horror film rhetoric between updated urban thriller and old-school psychological terror. It begins in the world of cell phone driven technology and Uber arrangements (scary on its own!) before digressing into the old fashioned killer-in-the-dark teasing of its victims through foggy window writing and ominous nature warnings. The problem with the film, however, is that it tries way too hard to create an iconography of horror alongside the luminaries of the genre, from Freddy Krueger to the Slenderman. Add in a dash of forgettable lead characters suffering the supernatural indignities, and The Toll takes more than it deserves.
Opening on a cell phone image of swipe-left or swipe-right, a male finger gently hovers over the image of attractive Cami (Jordan Hayes). It’s not long after when Cami exits the airport from her late night arrival and settles into the car of Spencer (Max Topplin). She just wants a bit of piece and quiet, but Spencer’s pseudo creepy conversation soon creates an unsettling atmosphere- so much so that Cami expectantly readies a can of mace in her hand.
This opening section of psychological cat-and-mouse would usually be enough to satisfy a swath of the genre- think of Wes Craven’s underrated minimalist plane set film Red Eye (2005). But The Toll is just getting started, and a GPS-inspired wrong turn sets the already tenuous passenger and driver down a dark, desolate road and into a nightmare.
The car stops working. Screaming matches ensue and each person’s motivations are questioned. Attempts at finding help along the wooded road leads them back to the same spot because, of course, all horror films exist in a sinister time loop. Then something begins teasing them, and ensuing quick cuts to half visible faces or dark shadows behind them begin to take over. Added to the tension are some serious secrets in both the closets of Cami and Spencer, which seems to be the primary motive of the force they come to know as The Toll Man.
Borrowing from a host of other films and creating an evil presence that’s never quite as scary (or interesting) as the film believes it to be, The Toll rumbles forward with little energy or sympathy. Hayes and Topplin feign terror and deception well, but they’re stick figures in a film and a world that’s been done a thousand times before. And by the time an old woman shows up on a tractor in one scene and explains the gist of the couple’s otherworldly nightmare (ala something from Fred Gwynne in Pet Semetary), The Toll feels a bit overwrought in its own mythology and never quite recovers, no matter how much further it goes into its characters stressful pasts or hidden intentions.
The Toll opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday March 26th.