From the moment one-half of The Toll‘s main duo parks up in Michael Nader’s new horror, the writer/director makes every effort to toy, not with the genre’s tropes, but the social preconceptions ingrained in its audience. Unnamed app cabbie Spencer arrives at the airport to pick up his next fare, Cami, and the drive hits tension as soon as it starts. She’s the type of passenger who doesn’t want to talk, and he’s a clueless driver expressing his interest in hunting and checking every box to qualify as the next Zodiac killer. As far as setting the scene goes, Nader lays his out brilliantly in his directorial debut. Showing Spencer only in side-profiles and passing glances in the rear-view mirror, everything on display screams that there’s a villain at the wheel and Cami’s next stop could be her last. That’s what she thinks, at least.
Soon though, things take a supernatural turn as the pair find themselves broken down on a dark dirt road, with someone or something watching them from just beyond the treeline. With no sign of help for miles and only each other to depend on, Spencer and Cami must pit themselves against various horrors waiting for them in the woods, if it means making it out alive. Cue an array of head-trippy treks through, masked inhabitants at every turn, and talk of a monster orchestrating the whole thing. His name is the Toll Man, and he wants to make them pay.
Playing like the Blair Witch caught an Uber with Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, Nader’s balancing act of familiar tropes before turning things spooky works for the most part. The awkward silences and broken back and forth between the film’s key characters sets the unease that this really could go in any direction, right before establishing what sort of ride we’re on. It’s a rug-pull made a lot easier thanks to a lead pair who are far more self-aware of the nightmare they’re in than most horror fodder that came before them.
A double act with very little to work with besides each other can be a considerable risk. If they don’t work well together, chances are the rest of the film will suffer dearly for it. Thankfully, both Jordan Hayes and Max Topplin, as Cami and Spencer, have a chemistry that clashes and clicks well with one another when it needs to. Hayes’ jetlagged, conclusion-jumping passenger is the chalk to Topplin’s socially awkward, hunting obsessed cheese, helping the film along at a decent pace. Referencing The Strangers, when things get weird and calling out each other’s poor judgements, it makes them a bit more relatable than what other disposable horror characters often end up being.
With that said, it doesn’t stop either of them from making the occasional head-shaking decisions that horror films can’t be without and scares that Nader has a lot of fun delivering. There are times when things get weird, and all manner of unsettling imagery is on display, but the director still ensures that a flashlight aimed into the unknown is enough to elevate the anxiety. It’s efficient and effective seeing Cami wander off only to get lost in the darkness and another testament to this first-time director that he’s got the skills to scare us if necessary. His only issue is sticking the landing when his ghost story comes to a close.
It’s quickly apparent that with stereotypes being highlighted and the meta-reference of horror classics that have come before, Nader knows the sandbox he’s playing in and has a chance to bring something new to it. What’s frustrating is that he sets up the opportunity to do so and doesn’t follow through, almost tarnishing the whole experience as a result. There’s no question he has the capability as a director with the journey he sends us on, but it’s the destination that may ultimately leave you wondering if it was even worth it.
Iffy ending aside, a lot is going for The Toll that qualifies Nader as a filmmaker worth keeping an eye out for. You’ve got to start somewhere, and this almost self-aware scary little number with a decent cast at its core is worth a start. Pay the toll, and you might enjoy the ride.
The Toll will be available in theatres, on demand and digital from March 26, 2021