2021, NR, 80 min. Directed by Michael Nader. Starring Jordan Hayes, Max Topplin, James McGowan, Rosemary Dunsmore.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 26, 2021
When you get into a rideshare (remember those?) or let someone into your car, who should be more scared – the passenger or the driver? When Cami (Hayes) finds herself down a dark road because her driver, Spencer (Topplin), seems to have taken them down a backroad, of course she's going to be nervous, and that's after she worked out that he's the definitional creepy rideshare driver, oversharing and overeager to push her boundaries. But then Spencer doesn't trust Cami, who is consistently rude, and has dragged him to the middle of nowhere, then falsely accused him of taking a wrong turn that doesn't even exist.
Those terrors are more than enough to set up their night of horrors in the woods, and so the intrusion of uncanny forces in their already unstable back-and-forth makes the odds of an alliance all the more unlikely. It doesn't help that whatever those forces want, they're being opaque about it, leaving obtuse messages in the dirt on the window about paying tolls.
The Toll, which played at SXSW 2020 as part of the Midnighters selection, is impressive within its microbudget. Most of its duration is just Cami and Spencer in the car together, and writer/director Nader uses every little asset he can to scrape together external scares. Yet that leads to limitations for this supernatural shocker, and there are just not the resources to pull off a cosmic creepfest like Baskin, or the recent remake of Indonesian rural chiller The Queen of Black Magic. The practical effects are one step up from amateur dramatics, or a charity fundraising haunted house – but that's not a negative. There's something very rough-hewn about The Toll, but there's also something intriguing in its low-budget creativity, and especially in how cinematographer Jordan Kennington finds new ways to hide the limitations and spotlight the right darknesses.
Where The Toll feels like its overdrawn is in the narrative. Even at a sparse 80 minutes, the build of the tension and set-up of Cami and Spencer's mistrusting relationship is too extended. If the film is asking asking you to pay it in time, the return on investment may seem a little low.
Available on VOD now.
Read our interview with director Michael Nader, "The Toll Keeps Rolling," March 12, 2020.