SpectreWatch | Part 1: ‘Toad Road’ and Our Personal Hell
SpectreWatch is where writer Justin Drabek discusses the horror filmography of SpectreVision, the impact it has had on him, and the cultural relevance of the company’s commitment to making outsider art for the screen. Each film carries with it a unique tone and yet, as SpectreVision continues to produce more, there seems to be a thread that carries throughout the work they choose to release.
If I were to rank all of the SpectreVision films, Toad Road would rank at the bottom. Nevertheless, I was deeply hooked after my first viewing. Before we go into Toad Road, though, we need to go back a few years before SpectreVision started, and talk about a man and his dog that can talk, Wilfred…
I didn’t have a lot of interest in horror and genre films from 2007 to 2011. I wasn’t paying attention to the great work coming out in those years. Instead, I was depressed and alone in California, not entirely sure what to do with my life. I felt an emptiness. I would go see films in the theater, but they would mostly be blockbuster escapism. Television was my main interest at the time, and throughout June of 2011, I kept seeing ads for a new show that starred Elijah Wood. It seemed silly and dark and perhaps something that would move something inside of my heart. It did. To this day, the American version of Wilfred is still one of my favorite shows of all time. It also happened to put Elijah Wood back on my radar. I always enjoyed the choices he’s made as an actor.
Eventually, I heard about a new film production company he was starting with some friends, and if you listen to any podcast that he and Daniel Noah have done discussing the inception of what would become SpectreVision, it aligned perfectly with what I enjoy about films, community, and friendship. My favorite thing in this world is discussing films with friends, and this company was born out of a work project that was to star Elijah Wood that never came to pass. As their conversations grew, Noah, Wood, and Josh Waller began a friendship that eventually led to a production company that would become SpectreVision.
Their first film as a company was Toad Road, which sounded familiar. My girlfriend at the time told me of the legend of Toad Road, a gateway to hell in York County, Pennsylvania. Along the road, there were seven gates and once you passed the seventh gate, you would never return. I’ve always loved those sorts of legends, so my interest was piqued when I found out that Jason Banker was making a film about it. I was beyond excited. Elijah Wood saw the film at a festival and decided to get involved, and the first SpectreVision production was here.
The film itself deals with wasted youth and using psychedelics and drugs as a way of escaping reality. It feels very home video, and a lot of the film takes place with just a bunch of kids destroying themselves with drugs. It was shot with mostly improvised conversations which Banker then wrapped into tonal shifts. It worked incredibly well, but the intensity of such reckless endangerment is hard to watch. Sarah (Sarah Jones), one of the main characters, is increasingly more interested in exploring the legend of Toad Road as she experiments more and more with drugs to find a deeper meaning. Her performance is wonderful but filled with a tinge of sadness; a few years later she passed away in real life. The pain and sadness felt in her performance are palpable and bleeds from the screen into the viewer’s life.
It’s very hard for me to revisit this film, as far too often drug use leads to a darkness that can never be overcome. The film’s horror with the gates of hell happens, but it’s more harrowing as you watch the aimlessness of youth. There are very powerful scenes throughout the feature, and I would recommend watching this film but with a clear warning that it’s not an easy watch. There is a wonderful scene that has two characters discussing their lives while riding bikes, one of my favorite moments in the film. It happens right before they arrive at Toad Road. There is a moment, however brief, where these two are going to be ok. Of course, this being a horror film at its heart, once James and Sarah begin the journey down the gates, things begin to get insane.
Though never quite in ways one might expect, there is a mystery surrounding the seven gates that lead to hell, but it acts more as a way to explore how the characters are already on the road to a hell of their own design. This is something we as humans tend to do pretty easily; we can find ourselves aimless and depressed. Films like this are cautionary tales that allow the lens of horror to reflect the painful realities of life. This film is about personal hell, and it spends a lot of time meandering on the subject. It is a perfect reflection of the way I tend to bury myself in a depression. This film was just as hard to watch this time as it was on first viewing. Though I could not relate to any of the characters, I know full well that we can create our own hell. Sometimes it doesn’t take a magic road to lead us there — we have all the tools we need. 🩸
Justin Drabek is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He also writes for Horror Obsessive and formerly for Killer Horror Critic. He loves cats, and dogs seem to like him…he’s not so sure about them. Follow him on Twitter @Justin_Drabek.
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