When an opening voiceover promises a glimpse of “the seven gates that lead to hell,” you’ve raised expectations bound to be frustrated by something like “Toad Road,” an ostensible horror movie with little actual horror content. Minus that genre billing, multihyphenate Jason Banker’s semi-improvised feature might be more easily appreciated for what it is: a drug-addled slice of life set among aimless Eastern youth that finally tips into ambiguous murder-mystery terrain. Intriguing if still somewhat unsatisfying on those terms, the pic won director and actor nods at last year’s Fantasia Film Festival, and will attract adventuresome indie horror fans in limited release starting Oct. 18, with home formats following in December.
Offering perhaps the most unappealing party-people scene since last year’s variably loathed and championed Sundance preem “The Comedy,” the personnel here (non-pro thesps who retain their real first names as characters) are a rudderless lot in their 20s or teens. They seemingly have nothing to do but get drunk, high, play dumb pranks (like setting an unconscious pal’s nether-hairs on fire), and occasionally attempt musicianship in a really, really terrible “band.” We meet James (James Davidson) as he’s being dragged, pants down, to a bathroom after a little too much fun. Having achieved near-terminal slackerdom, he’s getting his rent paid by Dad on the condition that he keep seeing a counselor (James Wyatt).
James mysteriously attracts pretty college freshman Sara (Sara Anne Jones), who’s enjoying independence for the first time and proves maybe too willing to join in with James & Co.’s prodigious drug use. (Even he admits he’s probably a “bad influence.) She’s also fascinated by a local urban legend about a nearby wooded area that’s the purported location of the aforementioned gates, which no longer exist physically along the forest trail, but can be sensed in terms of escalating hallucinations and other phenomena. It’s said that no one has gotten past the fifth gate, at which point time ceases to have meaning, blurring past, present and future.
After 45 minutes’ observation of this pretty pathetic social milieu, the lead duo duly set off to explore Toad Road, dropping acid for good measure. Once that kicks in, they’re separated, and we abruptly return to the very beginning, when we saw an underdressed James wake up face-down in the snow, then stumble toward back toward civilization. He thinks just hours have passed, but summer having turned to winter, he’s disconcerted to learn that he’s been gone six months, and is now a person of investigative interest in Sara’s disappearance.
There are eventual eye-blink flashback visions of what might have occurred. But “Road” isn’t interested in conventional reveals or conventional narrative chronology, as Banker and editor/co-d.p. Jorge Torres-Torres instead keep us in a state of dislocation that presumably echoes James’ overly self-medicated mindset. Subsidiary characters come and go with little or no explanation, and even the two leads’ backgrounding circumstances are very sparingly doled out. Though it can be taken at first glance as an archetypal “nothing happening” movie, there’s just enough going on here to suggest repeat viewings might reward curiosity.
No-budget, minimally crewed effort shot in Maryland and Pennsylvania has a very credible, lived-in feel to its slacker-culture sketch, with effective performances to match. More ominous, perhaps supernaturally tinged bits are fleeting but atmospheric, making good use of various-artists tracks heavy on unsettling ambient sounds.