Directed by: Michael Nader. Starring: Jordan Hayes, Max Topplin, James McGowan. Runtime: 1h 20 min.
As the world advances in its technology, ridesharing services like Uber rise in popularity. While Uber feels safer as you can see the profile of who’s picking you up, you may never truly know your driver. Or, for that matter, you may never truly know your passenger. That is the starting point of the new psychological horror film from Michael Nader, The Toll, where Cami (Jordan Hayes, who also produces) is coming home from a trip and, instead of asking her father to come get her, decides to get in an Uber-adjacent for her hour-long trip home. That’s where the socially awkward Spencer (Max Topplin, who also produces) comes into play.
He gives off weird vibes and talks about hunting; basically whatever you shouldn’t say in a rideshare, he says it. He later credits this to just being seriously socially inept where he can’t carry a normal conversation, which checks out, as he does give off more the awkwardness of Zach Galifianakis in Due Date than serial killer vibes. On Cami’s ride home, Spencer takes an unusual turn that his GPS suggests and soon his car breaks down in the middle of the night where they’re soon stalked by an unseen, evil force.
At first with the tense character dynamic, it wasn’t sure if it would be a fight for her life sort-of narrative or fight for their life sort-of tale, but when they take the wrong turn and it turns into that sort-of film, it becomes more clear and less clear simultaneously. They’re stranded on the road and when the car breaks down, their cell phones also stop working. Cami decides to walk up the road on her own and the road is lined with threats (“keep going, I dare you”) or signs telling the characters to pay the Toll Man.
Then, as Cami goes further down the road in a straight line, she ends back up at the car. It all leans into the premise that has some Twilight Zone tendencies and some fine world building by Michael Nader, who also writes the film. A scene of exposition that explains their situation is one of the film’s more intriguing moments because we get some answers of what to expect, and the blatant use of the “exposition fairy” trope is easily forgiven since it’s a good scene.
The most interesting aspect, perhaps, is the film’s psychological horror and the dynamic between Cami and Spencer. There’s mistrust even in the car from the beginning of the film but the anxiety between them is elevated when Cami finds creepy evidence, but it seems as if The Toll Man enjoys playing tricks and is trying to turn them against one another. In performance, the way Hayes and Topplin explore that is interesting and it keeps the film’s pacing energetic as they’re wary of each other. There’s a lot of mystery of what’s happening in the dynamic between them on a reality level, as well as what’s being influenced by The Toll Man. That psychological aspect of them butting heads also let’s some social commentary happen organically. Some of the character analysis and developments are cliché as the film delves into the past of Cami and Spencer, and can hurt the quick pacing of the film, it quickly gets back to the horror at hand.
I’m happy to report that the horror has decent tension and has a world that makes some semblance of sense, though, since there’s psychological horror, certain rules have more leeway. As well, in the straightforward horror, there’s strong use of sound design here as they’re tormented when they’re simply sitting in the car, and there’s equally creepy moments as they’re forced to run through the woods to try and find help. As well, in the sequences where we see apparitions other than The Toll Man, it’s creepier because we know those terrors are actually there.
The Toll has some twists and turns on its straight road as it leads to a destination that underwhelms somewhat, but it’s a solid 80 minutes of horror with enough standout sequences and mystery to maintain audience attention throughout.