For the next few days, yellowwait and I are hanging out in Montreal, taking in a number of films as part of the Fantasia Film Festival. I’ll be posting some thoughts on the films we see when I have a chance. For now, let’s begin with the world premiere of independent psychological horror film, Toad Road.
Let’s bitch it out…
Quick contextual recap: Fantasia is a genre film festival that runs annually in Montreal, Canada during the month of July and August. The films come from around the world and are often only available at festivals or in limited release, meaning that some of these films are only really available at the festival. There’s a heavy emphasis on horror, sci-fi, and anime films, so the audience is made of an interesting cross-mix of backgrounds from geeks to international film fans, young to old, etc.
Now onto the main event: the world premiere of Jason Banker’s Toad Road.
Billing Toad Road as a “horror film” is a bit of dupe since the film is really more about disaffected youth who are caught in the awkward transition between life as a teenager and being an adult. The film, directed by first time fiction filmmaker Jason Banker, is steeped in the documentary tradition and it’s easy to see the influences of several indy directors he cited as influences, including Gus Van Sant. The “fly on the wall” approach picks up almost immediately after the opening shots of male lead, James (James Davidson) walking in a snowy forest and hitching a ride with a passing motorist. For the majority of the remaining 75 minutes, the film follows James, his new girlfriend Sara (Sara Anne Jones) and the rest of their hard partying friends as they hang out and get high…a lot.
The film’s logline suggests that it is concerned with an urban legend from York, PA (where the director grew up) about the seven gates of hell. Located just off the side of a country road, the gates are said to cause different sensory hallucinations that becoming increasingly severe the further individuals go (after some research Sara tells James that no one has made it past the fifth gate). This interest in the occult and urban legend is not the film’s raison d’etre, however, as the majority of the run time involves watching the group snort, smoke and ingest various drugs. Throughout the course of the film, it becomes clear, however, that Sara is moving away from the “party hard” mentality of the rest of the burn-outs in an effort to explore a deeper level of consciousness. This search ultimately leads her – and James – to the seven gates.
After Sara goes missing and James discovers that he’s lost months during their trip through the gates, the film zeroes in on James’ increasing frustration and helplessness. It’s a dizzying, tour de force performance as the drug use, violence and self-abuse from the first half is replayed in almost suicidal fashion by the distraught young man.
Technically the film has a low budget aesthetic reminiscent of the recent wave of found-footage films meant to evoke documentaries (Cloverfield, Project X, Chronicle and another film Banker references, The Blair Witch Project). The actors are all amateurs, chosen as a group of friends by Banker via MySpace (that still exists?!). Initially the levels of inexperience in the actors is appallingly evident, but this soon becomes less of an issue – likely because the “actors” become more comfortable in front of the camera (the film appears to have been shot in chronological order). Of the amateurs, Davidson and Anne Jones, as the principle actors, fare the best.
Asked in the Q&A following the film how much of the film was improvised and how much was scripted, Banker indicated that a majority of the film is unscripted. This lends the film a very realistic feel, but also raises eyebrows at the copious scenes of drinking, drug use, and violence, including a few graphic scenes following Sara’s disappearance when random passer-bys punch James repeatedly in the head at his request. As a film with a very loose narrative and many eye-catching shots, I have to say that listening to Banker talk about creating Toad Road negatively affected my appreciation of the film. Whether it was nerves, or an inability to elaborate on his responses, Banker’s answers bordered on cavalier, as though he simply picked up a camera, grabbed some teens from MySpace and happened to make a movie. Considering how strongly I responded to several visual setpieces, including some gorgeous underwater work, a shroom trip in a cave and a long take of Sara and James biking to the gates, Banker’s responses made me wonder whether these scenes were flukes that he and his crew happened to capture by some minor miracle. Simply put, although he allowed his actors to improvise, Banker’s answers did a disservice to the technical work that his crew and other filmmakers put into their films.
Verdict: Setting aside these impressions, Toad Road is an interesting, evocative and tantalizingly open-to-interpretation low-budget film that has some truly artistic shots that could have benefited from a slightly tighter narrative focus. It’s a promising debut that’s worth a look.
Toad Road is screening at the Fantasia Film Festival again on Monday, July 30 at 1pm
For more information, visit the Fantasia Film Festival webpage for the film here