Monday, December 16, 2013

Seeing Things

Toad Road, which comes out tomorrow on DVD through Kino Lorber's Artsploitation line, is a horror film that comes weighted with some real-world significance, partly natural to the proceedings, but mostly awful, and eerie as well, though it's an eeriness that the filmmakers would have never wanted for their film. The regular significance, the insignificant significance, comes from the fact that Toad Road takes as its core horror idea an actual urban legend, that of the "Seven Gates of Hell" which are said to be found along a stretch of rural asphalt in Hellam Township, PA, near the border with Maryland. Urban legends being what they are, there are lots of variations and contradictions that you'll find once you start reading about it, but for the purposes of writer-director Jason Banker it suffices that in his film that lonely stretch of road is known as Toad Road. The seven gates -- which were real gates, regular gates I mean, though most are now gone -- represent different stages of the path to Hell, and no one, we are told, has ever made it past the fifth gate. Getting to the fifth gate will involve, a character in the film says, "hearing things" and "seeing things" and so forth.

Toad Road bears a very close resemblance to The Blair Witch Project, though it isn't a found footage movie (this in itself, in 2013, and given what Banker's budget must have been, is almost transgressive). Banker does, however, want to create a documentary tone, and much of what he films may indeed function as a document. Most of the characters are drug-addled burn-outs played by actors, and non-actors, of the same name -- so, for instance, the lead characters James and Sara are played by James Davidson and Sara Anne Jones, another Blair Witch Project conceit, though in this case that choice hurts a little bit more. It would appear that many of the drugs being consumed on camera are actually being consumed on camera -- one guy certainly does snort a condom up his nose -- and for much of Toad Road it feels like the reference being pursued is more Charles Bukowski than Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick.

Sara is a pretty young woman who, when she meets James and his group of friends, whose idea of a good time is to hike to a cave and get high inside it, she's bizarrely ennamored with the lifestyle (I mean, I know it happens all the time, but when you see it happen in front of you it actually makes no sense) -- it's all very scuzzy, and unwashed, and drifting, and gross. But she wants in, and James, the expert, takes her under his wing and instructs her with an air of wisdom that would be hilarious if other factors didn't make that laughter catch in the throat. Not atypically in stories like this, Sara wants to push further than any of the people who've been living like this for years, and it's Sara who introduces Toad Road and the Seven Gates of Hell into Jame's life. She wants to actually go, and as the drugs suck her down deeper, and as James tries to claw out of the same hole -- he does a poor job, but the attempt feels genuine -- they finally do go, and the last twenty minutes or so of this very short film (it's only 76 minutes, with credits) becomes a horror movie of the kind you more or less expected when you put in the DVD.

More or less. The horror in Toad Road is a metaphor for all the drug stuff we've already seen, and on one level it's rather blunt, but this is okay as far as I'm concerned. Horror is a genre that allows for bluntness in this way. I almost feel that horror is most effective when its either very blunt or entirely obscure, when you sense there are metaphors at play, or might be at play, but you'll be damned if you can guess what they're for. This is a generalization, and I maybe shouldn't have made it, but the point is that in a sense Toad Road is carrying on the tradition of classic horror films like The Wolf Man, where the horror is only pretending to act as a mask for some other idea.A crucial plot element involves one character blacking out for an extended period, and, so it follows, having no idea what happened during that time. From there, you don’t have to travel far to find what Banker’s after.

The supernatural elements in Toad Road come very late, but are nevertheless briefly visualized. I’d have thought that at the point where we see anything, Banker might have realized such a thing was unnecessary. Not only unnecessary, but ill-advised, at least as the image is executed. Banker was clearly working with almost no money, and while it’s fine and admirable to stretch those limited resources at some point you do have to acknowledge this isn’t poker and there’s no one to bluff. All of which is simply to say that the one visual effect to be found in Toad Road doesn’t work, and looks cheap in a very specifically digital way that strikes me as the exact opposite of what is desired. However, it’s there only briefly, and the concept is modest enough that it’s not too hard to sale on by it, especially since what follows – how many gates were passed, and to what end? – is the meat of the horror anyway.

Which brings up the other aspect of reality in which Toad Road, as a completed film that exists now beyond the making of it, in a form accessible to millions, finds its roots. Before the closing credits role, there’s a dedication to “the memory of Sara Anne Jones,” the lead actress who died, very young, of a heroin overdose shortly after filming was completed. The way this fact lines up with the film is impossible to ignore, and Toad Road carries that weight. Both of these things are true, but then what? It would be tasteless to suggest Jones’s death somehow made Toad Road a better film, even though the world Banker creates ties in directly to Jones’s own life, as well as her death. So Toad Road is left adrift as something it never intended to be, as less a horror film than a document, or anyway this, I predict, will be its fate. When you watch it, it’s up to you to try and separate the film it was trying to be and the film it became and see if it can stand up. As a matter of fact, I think it can, though my patience with it was tested, and tested early. But it goes somewhere, and finally is its own thing, which is about all you can hope for.


John said...

This sounds to me more than a little like another fairly new-ish horror flick called Yellow Brick Road. I think I might actually have kinda liked that one, on the whole, so... worth a look, I guess, if you haven't seen it. That one might also fall into the "found footage" category, but if so it's among the more inspired uses of the form (a form, admittedly, I probably have a higher tolerance for than I probably should).

Not sure I share your feelings vis-à-vis metaphors and so on in horror. Thing is, I don't care much about metaphors. If somebody wants to read things into a horror movie and divine some deeper meaning, some broader intellectual application of things shown, then by all means, be my guest. For me, though, horror is above all a visceral concern--it has to hit you hard in the guts first, and then, maybe, some of its poison might eventually work its way into the brain.

And that's by no means to belittle the aims of horror. By "visceral" I don't mean playing around with blood and guts, but affecting the audience on a subconscious, emotional, irrational level. The level that feeds our nightmares and in which our basest fears are born. Good horror taps into something primal, our at best not wholly solid grip on reality, and our fear of losing it for good, and leaves us with, to cop an expression Robert Aickman was fond of, a lasting respect for things we don't understand.

bill r. said...

I don't actually disagree with you about any of this, really. But the fact of the matter is that horror often does traffic in metaphor, and I find the straightforward variety, when done well, pretty appealing (also see THE BROOD).

I should have reworded some of that passage, though, and described the other end of the spectrum in terms other than metaphor. Primal and visceral and strange would have worked.