Michael Nader’s directing debut owes a lot to many films before it, but shows enough ambition and creativity of its own to make it one of 2021’s most welcome treats….
Recalling such delights like the very underrated and sadly now forgotten 2003 hit DEAD END, The Toll takes a delicious wrong turn into a path that may breed familiarity for many of the watching horror fans, but to its utmost credit, there is also an air of freshness wrapped around the scent of impending doom for its two characters who are set to face their ultimate nightmare.
Lets be honest, with a silly title and a new bogeyman called “The Toll Man”, then expectancy levels will no doubt be low for many sitting down to watch, but what director Michael Nader manages to pull off is a masterclass of tension building, with some decent jump scenes without trying to go down the gore route, which in the year 2021 is a remarkable feat and something that makes this feel like a glorious old fashioned Camp Fire tale.
The set up is as simple as any horror film needs. The film starts with Cab driver, Spenser (Max Topplin) flickering through his phone, bypassing many those wanting lifts until his eyes set on Cami (Jordan Hayes), a young lady just getting off a plane and needing a ride to her Dad’s home which just happens to be in the middle of nowhere.
Its from here that the film sizzles as you sense the dread, with Spenser himself not helping as his awkward attempts of a conversation with Cami, makes her doubt that the guy who is driving her to the planned destination may in fact be some “weird serial killer”. When he takes a detour -because that is what the directions on his phone tell him to – the tension cranks up, especially when the road takes them down a spooky route of dense trees and a mystery figure standing in the middle of the road, in which Spenser narrowly misses.
A broken down car and mystery signs appearing on the road later and we are truly in a ghostly world with both Spenser and Cami unsure of what is happening until a strange woman (Rosemary Dunsmore) arrives on a tractor. who kindly gives them and us the cliché ridden heavy exposition speech about the backstory of the Toll Man.
Apart from that silly moment, The Toll then exceeds with its plan to thrill and yet oddly the bogeyman himself plays secondary in terms of the horror as while we get fleeting images of this new monster in town, his power is basically to give his planned victims a taste of their inner fear.
With this, secrets from the past of both Spenser and Cami emerge as they start to question what is real and not which adds to some visual imagery that impresses and stands out from its limited budget and and with a eerie soundtrack on top, The Toll delights a lot more than you would expect.
Nader doesn’t reinvent the horror genre here, but with believable rapport between the two leads, some twists in the tale that will surprise a few and many moments of high level creepiness, The Toll is a welcome blast of old scares and thrills with a concept that this horror fan would seriously consider paying the charge and taking the trip again if a sequel is greenlit
Out now on SHUDDER