THE TOLL (2021)
Jordan Hayes, Max Topplin, James McGowan, Rosemary Dunsmore, Jess Brown, Sarah Camacho, Thomas L. Colford, Daniel Harroch, Pamela MacDonald
Directed by Michael Nader
Have you ever wandered down a country road late at night pondering what lies in the darkness just outside the periphery of your headlights? The thought of the car breaking down lingers in your mind. How frightening would that be? Now take that fear and add a dead cell phone plus a complete stranger and you have arrived at Michael Nader’s chilling feature debut, “The Toll.”
Jordan Hayes (SyFy’s “Helix”) plays Cami, a traveler who’s flown in to visit her father who lives on a farm in Canada. She orders a rideshare at the airport where she’s met by driver Spencer (Max Topplin), an awkward chatty guy who rejected two possible male fares before accepting Cami’s request. Red flag, already.
It’s a long ride from the city to the farm which gives Spencer plenty of time to make small talk. He professes his love for bow hunting and offers to take Cami along on his next excursion (red flag number two), which obviously makes her uncomfortable. She cuts Spencer off by telling him that she’s tired and wants to sleep while keeping her bottle of pepper spray nearby.
Nadar does an effective job of building tension while making the viewer uneasy. Think about it. What do you know about that Lyft or Uber driver whose car you just stepped into? It’s a double-edged sword as Spencer confesses later in the film that he never knows if his fare will turn out to be a homicidal maniac.
Horror seeps into the narrative as Spencer’s cell phone suddenly dies and a masked figure resembling the male villain in “The Strangers” appears in the middle of the road. Cami screams “Whoa, watch out!” but Spencer slams into the figure head-on. “Did you hit someone?” she asks, but Spencer yells out “There’s no one here” after failing to discover a body around the car’s perimeter.
The anxiety ramps up when the car won’t start and the cell phones die leaving the two stranded in the woods in the middle of the night. Walking down the road to find help doesn’t work because eventually, you find yourself back at the stranded car where someone has scrawled the message “Please pay the Toll Man” on the back window.
Like an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” the mood turns to the surreal as strange things begin to happen pitting Spencer and Cami against each other while contending with the masked figure that continues to show up. He wants his toll, and he doesn’t accept cash, debit, credit, or Venmo. The Toll Man wants blood as explained by a raincoat-wearing lady (Rosemary Dunsmore) on a tractor who shows up to warn the pair, “You’re in his place.” She explains, “He’s not like you and me” and adds “He’s not a man at all.”
Even without the Toll Man, the scenario was creepy to begin with. Nadar injects real scares by keeping the audience in the dark. It’s a volatile atmosphere that becomes complicated by the fact that you never know what is real or being imagined. It’s an interesting concept that isn’t pushed far enough. Just as the supernatural occurrence starts getting tense, Nadar pulls back the reigns and offers the viewer some respite from the terror.
Hayes and Topplin deliver solid performances in the film that’s sure to give get under your skin especially the next time you find yourself driving down a desolate stretch of road late at night.
In Theaters, On Demand and Digital.