In the eighties it was camping, for more recent years it was computers, and most recently the quickest way to Horrorville in cinema is to use a ridesharing company. Writer/director Michael Nader’s The Toll goes beyond the usual thriller angle of either the driver or the passenger being a potential killer to drop its two main characters off in a supernatural zone not too far from the original destination, yet at least one dimension away.
Cami (Jordan Hayes) is exhausted from a series of flight delays and less than thrilled about visiting her father at his rural home. Her rideshare driver Spencer (Max Topplin) is a socially awkward, talkative person, and after an initially uncomfortable start to their ride, things take a turn for the weird and deadly when the pair journeys into an area where their phones and Spencer’s car stop working.
After a while of playing the blame game and distrusting each other and then having to trust each other, along with exploring the surrounding area and finding weird signs and ominous messages, the pair see a woman (Rosemary Dunsmore) come down the road on a tractor. She gives a n exposition-heavy speech about the backstory of the Toll Man, an evil other-dimensional entity that demands the lives of humans for crossing into his world.
Nader invests The Toll with concepts of long-term trauma and the nagging agitation and stress that can be a result of disturbing past events. Fears and past hurt eat away at both Cami and Spencer, and the Toll Man takes advantage of that, blurring what is real and what is imagined so as to make the pair more suspicious of one another. Plot developments such as this make the film a strong one, content wise, and make the two main characters truly interesting. The dialogue between them is realistic, from arguments resulting from mistrust to trying to figure out an escape plan. The atmosphere in The Toll is full of angst and dread, and Nader shows a deft directorial hand at creating such a claustrophobic world and heightening suspense therein.
Hayes and Topplin have fine chemistry together, playing off one another well whether they are at odds or letting down their guards. Their fearful reactions to events and their more emotional moments when being confronted by past traumas come across as believable.
One of the more imaginative and unusual horror films of the year so far, The Toll eschews the usual cliches of backwoods horror and wrong-turn fear fare, offering instead a more surreal and psychological journey into a dark, remote area.
The Toll, from Saban Films, is now available in theaters, On Demand and Digital.
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