When Cami orders a taxi service to take her to her father’s country home, she’s hoping for a quiet and uneventful ride. But a wrong turn by Spencer, her chatty driver, results in the car stalling on a dark and remote road. After several threatening and inexplicable occurrences, Cami and Spencer realize they are being watched by an unseen presence – one that sees them as trespassers, and is ready to exact a deadly toll.
You are surrounded by a black sea of trees. Everywhere you look, all you see is the impenetrable darkness of the lonely, quiet night. As you walk, completely lost, your mind begins to wander around your trauma. All your misdeeds, nightmares and fears start to weigh upon you as unknown voices whisper words of violence and despair into your very soul. That is the story of The Toll, a supernatural horror movie from 2020 with its roots deeply ingrained in the Creepypasta monsters of old. Come with our writers Adam, Aubry, Dustin, and Vic as they explore the depths of a forest ruled by an omnipotent eldritch monstrosity and find out the hard way that, when you stare at the abyss… it is bound to stare back.
I thought the cinematography was wonderful, and if I knew nothing else about the film I would have thought this was a high budget production. Lighting, or more specifically darkness, was utilized incredibly to create an atmosphere that is both menacing and disorienting.
It appears there is a decent budget behind this flick, while still undeniably ‘indie’. Certainly, the location work, cinematography and sound design allows the film to punch above its weight. For me, the production was really put well together to create a strong sense of dread throughout. Easily my favorite thing about The Toll.
From what I understand, this is very much an independent film yet it looked to me like a lot of effort went into making the film look top-dollar. It’s like something I’d expect from Blumhouse’s model of making a good-looking film out of a small budget.
Although the movie is pretty well shot and well lit, the costume design really bothers me. The Toll Man is CLEARLY just a dude wearing a potato sack and a rubber mask who’s trying to get some fun new content for his original Creepypasta website with the help of his cryptic old lady of a grandma, which ends up going a biiit too far, though. In the end, the movie looks pretty good, but fails in many other aspects.
Story and Characters
The character Cami was well thought out and relatable, with Hayes giving an excellent performance. Many of the early scenes where Spencer is being a creep as a rideshare driver had my heart racing because they were close to experiences I have had with drivers late at night. The exploration of Cami’s past trauma through the Toll Man’s attempts to manipulate her are nauseating to watch and probably the most unsettling (but somehow very socially aware) part of the movie. The film itself seems modeled on trauma, where the main characters are trapped on a deserted road in the woods and every exit brings them back to the car, much like PTSD trauma responses and the physiological triggering of being back in that moment, no matter how far you advance in life otherwise. I’m not sure it was intentional, but one accidental reading could say the whole movie is a metaphor for Cami coming to the other side of her trauma after so many years, while deciding to live and forgive herself.
While the story does seem a bit ‘creepypasta’ in structure, I actually really enjoyed the approach they took towards the monster and his modus operandi (manipulation over hands on approach). The characters, however, are where I was let down with the film. While I would say the performances themselves are great, I think both Cami and Spencer are really poorly written. In part, this comes from mishandling of sensitive subject matter that is shoehorned into the film to sway the viewer one way over the other. In particular, Spencer has a really disappointing character arc.
The story itself was your standard fare “local legend comes to life” story. What really appeals to me is the dynamic between our characters. Usually, stories like this strand groups of friends or a couple in a remote location so I definitely thought that by having two strangers (one’s a rideshare driver, the other, his passenger) having to rely on each other, this offers a shakeup of the pairings we usually see with horror films.
The two main characters, Cami and Spencer, start off a bit bland, but they both get more interesting and complex as the story proceeds and we learn more about them, their histories and, most importantly, their traumas. These scenes are a deep dive into the character’s psyches, to the point that we can somewhat understand where some of their behavior and personality come from. This is, however, where it stops. There is not much in the way of story. The Toll Man, the trip and the woods are just vehicles for a character study. There is, however, a plot twist near the end that I didn’t really see coming, which both surprised me and made the movie a bit more interesting.
What to Love
As mentioned previously, the exploration of trauma, lingering longer than most films to explore what victims experience and how they carry it for the rest of their lives, was grotesque; beautiful and horrifying at the same time. Rather than scratching the surface of a taboo for cheap viewer discomfort, it puts the viewer in Cami’s life experience, exploring a monster (the Toll Man) utilizing it for his own gain. There is a scene where the Toll Man has Cami have a conversation with an older version of herself, seemingly on her deathbed, that was the most haunting part of the movie and I feel was skillfully done.
The movie presents itself as a competent horror mystery that carries a predictable yet foreboding atmosphere through the first half of the production. In addition, “The Toll Man” has an intriguing method in delivering mistrust through messing with his victims perceptions. Undeniably, the design of the Toll man itself may be crude, but I still felt he was an apt villain worthy of another appearance down the line. There is a lot of potential here, even if this film falls flat.
As mentioned, I loved the dynamic between the two leads as they don’t really know each other but they’re forced into a situation where they have to work together. The premise and lore is simple but I did feel the film managed to maximize this with its supposed low budget. The scares are of the haunted house variety, which I think works well with what the film is going for: an entertaining horror ride to be watched with friends. I also dug how we’re kind of thrown along for the ride, not knowing anything about the two, and that we get to know them as the film goes along. This helped create that tension of not knowing who to trust or if one person is more reliable than the other.
For all the things The Toll does wrong, depth of character is definitely something it gets right. The protagonists’ behavior starts making more sense the more you think about all the trauma they’ve been through. Besides that, if you have the sense of humor to laugh at a bad movie with your friends, you can definitely enjoy this one.
What Didn’t Work For Us
Oh boy, the costumes first and foremost, with a hackneyed sack-face antagonist who looked like a dime store Rorschach in a dirty white suit, rubbish pile ripoffs of Silent Hill nurses, and individuals in white leotards adorned in hackneyed and cheap looking plague masks. Budget is not an excuse since I have seen much lower budget films present much better effects, The Head Hunter (2018) for example. I would have liked to see a more original visual for the baddies in this film, especially for the Toll Man character who was neither frightening nor particularly original.
The script is pretty bad and rushed, for dealing with some heavy themes within the span of only 80 minutes the film asks for a lot of leaps in logic. Notably, the victimization of Cami I felt was pandering and a weak way to change the narrative in her favor. In general, when a film deals with sensitive subject matter it needs to understand it both in the moral and narrative sense. The morality might be there, but the film relies too heavily on appealing to a sense of demanding justice or closure without considering how it works within the horror genre. While the first chunk of the film, which feels more traditional, is passable, the latter half stumbles in such a horrid and awkward way that it loses all steam.
As our characters’ pasts are revealed, I felt that things were going a bit too fast for me. I was able to eventually put two and two together but there were several scenes that doubled as scare scenes and info-dump scenes that left me confused.
“Cryptic Old Lady of the Woods, what is your wisdom/exposition?”
COLW : “I dunno, maybe go watch a better movie.”
Although the characters are interesting and the movie is pretty well shot, everything else is mostly garbo of the stanky variety. The scenery is basic and unoriginal. Dark woods, real creative, you guys. I also have a pretty big bone to pick with the Toll Man himself, who’s basically every supernatural Creepypasta character ever. Again, he is clearly just a guy wearing a potato sack and a rubber mask. It’s REALLY distracting how people keep repeating his name over and over again in the hopes that it becomes some sort of household name. It won’t, please give up.
Overall Scare Factor
Much of the horror was jump scares and “unknown lurking entity,” which just didn’t do it for me. Unfortunately, this is one of those films that I will likely completely forget about within a few months because there is very little that leaves a lasting impression, except dark winding roads through forests… which to be honest, I feel didn’t need a hype man since they are already super creepy.
The atmosphere is pretty creepy and there are a few good scares. However, The Toll feels more geared towards addressing trauma and using the horror situation to frame that. The film, at best, can be unsettling but to anyone who checks out at the half way mark it is hard too see this really seeping into the nightmares of anyone.
I’m the type of person that gets scared with creeping dread more, but I did appreciate the atmosphere and how the Toll Man messed with our protagonists’ heads. The film went more for psychological scares halfway through but there are also scares of the “gotcha!” variety. Overall, it didn’t really leave me scarred but I did have a good enough, entertaining experience.
Curiously, Spencer’s general creepiness is WAY scarier than anything the Toll Man does during the whole movie. It’s basically not very scary.
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