Producers: Max Topplin, Jordan Hayes and William Day Frank Director: Michael Nader Screenplay: Michael Nader Cast: Jordan Hayes, Max Topplin, James McGowan, Rosemary Dunsmore, Thomas L. Colford, Sharon McFarlane, Jana Peck, Jess Brown, Sean Sullivan and Daniel Harroch Distributor: Saban Films
If a grab bag of horror tropes is enough for you, you might enjoy this debut feature from writer-director Michael Nader (who also edited). But “The Toll” comes across as more an exercise in cumulative cliché than a fully thought-through movie.
The basic situation is hardly an unfamiliar one: two people are stranded in a frightening forest—not Hansel and Gretel but Cami (Jordan Hayes) and Spencer (Max Topplin). She’s just arrived, tired and edgy, in the early morning hours at Hamilton Airport in Ontario to visit her father, and he’s the ride-share driver who’s selected her as a client from the various possibilities on his phone. (Curiously, though, his car bears a Michigan license plate.)
Her destination proves to be a distant house at a remote address that will take the duo along a deserted two-lane road through a dark forest. Spencer’s a chatty, rather odd guy, but she quiets him by saying she’d like to nap. When she awakens, they engage in some small talk, and when they discuss hunting, he makes a weird joke about using his bow-and-arrow to go after small animals, deer, and human beings.
Spencer takes a turn Cami questions, and not long afterward the car shrieks to a halt when a figure suddenly appears in the middle of the road. Spencer, thinking he’s hit somebody, gets out to look, but nobody’s there, and afterward the car won’t start. And when Cami tries to walk to get help, she runs into odd “Road Closed” and “Detour” signs with threats scrawled on them, and winds up somehow back where she started, although she’d made no turns.
An explanation comes with the arrival of Lorraine (Rosemary Dunsmore), an old lady in a raincoat driving a tractor. She tells them they’ve fallen into the realm of The Toll Man, where they’re cut off from reality and can escape only by payment of a life.
There follows a succession of eerie moments—an old-style phonograph playing in the middle of the road, strange giggles coming from the surrounding trees, brief glimpses of cloaked and masked figures in the shadows, messages being tossed through the car windows wrapped around stones or traced in the dirt on the rear window, visions of relatives who have apparently been brutally killed—until the pair wind up at a cabin where they not only see themselves on television monitors but encounter figures from their painful past memories employed to taunt and frighten them. References to horror movies from the past (a few pretty terrible) abound, sometimes explicitly noted by the two protagonists, and there are none-too-oblique references to a parent’s suicide and a sexual attack in which the victim’s accusations went unheeded.
Then comes a final twist that returns the fear that Cami and Spencer initially had about one another full circle. That’s followed by a cop-out of an ending that seems intended to provide a modicum of nervous relief.
Especially for a micro-budget effort, “The Toll” has some significant virtues. Cinematographer Jordan Kennington gives the in-car images an effectively claustrophobic feel, and Nader manages some decent if predictable jump scares. Hayes and Topplin give quite good performances, bettering the amateur-night quality too often encountered in horror movies. And while Lucas Gentilcore’s production design is pretty spare, Torin Borrowdale’s score is less annoyingly obtrusive than one might have expected.
But though at under eighty minutes “The Toll” is less demanding of your attention than it might have been, overall the haphazard compendium of seen-it-before horror tricks isn’t worth the price of admission.