A rideshare with a giggly geek driver who may be a serial killer. The staggering-through-the-ink-black-woods-with-nothing-but-a-flashlight look and mood of “The Blair Witch Project.” A mystic schlock demon like Candyman, the Slender Man, or the spectral figures from “The Strangers.” A Victrola in the middle of the road, cranking an ancient warbly ditty à la “The Shining.” A cabin full of snowy TV screens out of the “Poltergeist” showroom. Memories of suicide, filicide, and a rape where the victim was blamed…
Each of these elements, ably handled, might exude a concrete scary resonance. But what are they all doing in the same horror movie? You could say that Michael Nader, the writer-director of “The Toll,” jams them together in an original way, striking just the right note of disquieting genre mashup to keep the audience pleasingly off balance. Or you could say that he’s cooked up a low-budget casserole out of some of his favorite horror films. (There’s an entire swatch of dialogue about “The Strangers,” as if that eerie-until-it’s-not 2008 spook show were some venerable classic to be referenced like “Psycho.”)
In this case, both views would be accurate. “The Toll,” which was scheduled to be part of SXSW (after the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus, the film premiered for a single late-night show), is a 78-minute minimalist fright flick shot with two actors in close quarters — mostly outside, at night, with the main “sets” being a woods and the dirt road that snakes through it. In the opening scene, Cami (Jordan Hayes), arriving from the city to visit her divorced father, nabs an airport rideshare with Spencer (Max Topplin), a socially awkward, overly-focused-on-the-other-person type who jabbers on (“You’re a really great passenger…there’s a lot of creepy people out there”) like some jittery screw-loose neurotic played by James Spader in 1988. Then the demon shows up.
Spencer hits him with his car, but there’s no corpse, and from that point on the characters are stuck in a low-rent, anything-goes Twilight Zone limbo where detour signs appear out of nowhere, and if you follow the road out of the woods you’ll just end up where you started. Then a stone gets tossed through the car window, with a note attached that says, “This road is closed. Proceed to detour to pay the Toll Man.”
Who is the Toll Man? He sounds like some figure out of an old “SNL” slasher-film parody (“They thought they had the right change. But now they’re getting an E-ZPass to hell!”). As it turns out, there is indeed a toll to be paid — but in this movie, it’s a body count.
The spirit of the Toll Man takes several forms, but mostly he looks like a crash-test dummy crossed with a smiley-face button. The closest the film comes to offering an explanation for his mischief arrives when a weird lady in a yellow rain hat shows up driving a tractor. Let’s call her the Lin Shaye character (she’s played by the very good Rosemary Dunsmore), and the monologue she delivers (“What he does is he takes that death and he makes it change course, right into his hands. You’re stuck on that road, his road, until he gets his toll!”) has a round-the-bend campfire logic worthy of the David Lynch of original-season “Twin Peaks.”
For a moment, the film teeters artfully between sanity and surreal menace. But at too many other points, a character will bark out a sentence like, “Has anything made any level of sense tonight?” And we think, “Now that you mention it — no, it hasn’t.” Jordan Hayes and Max Topplin get a tense-and-nervous rapport going, and Nader, making his first feature, springs a few cinematic tricks, like using tail-light glare to create a neon hell, or the way Spencer keeps reaching for his eye drops. But when he reaches for a crossbow and metal arrow, the film gets back to basics. “The Toll” is an okay calling-card movie, shivery at times but too eager to embrace illogic as the language of nightmares.