Horror movies don’t have to make a lick of sense as long as they get under your skin, engage in some intriguing myth making, gross you out, or simply terrify you. “The Toll” tries to do several of these, failing so badly that you may be angry at yourself for watching it. Writer/director Michael Nader teases us with several intriguing ideas, including some kind of malevolent spirit called the “Toll Man” and an environment our protagonists can’t seem to escape. But each idea amounts to absolutely nothing, culminating in a final twist that makes the one in “Happy Birthday to Me” look sensible and coherent by comparison.
Spencer (Max Topplin) works for a rideshare whose app’s interface looks like a dating service. He can swipe on pictures of people to decide whether to pick them up. We see him decline a tech bro and an older man before choosing an attractive woman. He picks Cami (Jordan Hayes) up from the airport before he knows where she wishes to be driven. After she puts in the address, Spencer mentions it’s a long drive deep into the boondocks. It’s 2 AM and this strange man is driving an unarmed woman to her father’s cabin deep in the woods. One immediately thinks “nothing good can come of this,” and, to our surprise, this thought has crossed Cami’s mind as well. She has more self-preservation skills than most horror movie characters, though she’s still dumb enough to get into a stranger’s car for a late-night trip to the middle of nowhere.
I’m surprised the emergence of the rideshare business hasn’t resulted in more scary features about people who order an Uber and get chopped to bits before they can rate their driver. For a hot minute, “The Toll” appears to lean in that direction, because Spencer is a damn weirdo. He asks inappropriate questions, comments on how pretty his passenger’s profile picture is, and casually mentions that he hunts “the primitive way,” with a bow and arrow instead of a gun. When Cami asks what he hunts, Spencer lists several animals, including human beings. As Cami contemplates whether she’d survive if she suddenly opened the door and jumped out of this moving car, Spencer awkwardly tells her “it was a joke!”
“I’m always afraid I’m going to be raped and murdered when I get a car,” Cami says. “I am always afraid my passenger’s gonna kill me,” Spencer tells her. In a movie this lazily written, you can’t help but consider that one of these scenarios will be employed before fade out. When Spencer’s car stalls on a dark road in the woods, a road that was not on the way to Daddy’s house, Cami is sure that her driver’s a madman. Finding several pictures of herself and her family in his car does little to alleviate her fears.
The film now pivots to the supernatural; Cami walks off into the woods to get away, yet despite going in the opposite direction, she ends up right back at Spencer’s car. A mysterious message appears on the back window, demanding payment of a mysterious toll. Reinforcement of this message soon follows courtesy of a rock with a message tied to it thrown through their window. Next, there’s the appearance of a shady old woman who, in a better movie, would have been played by Lin Shaye. The woman speaks of “The Toll Man,” raising our expectation that we’re about to get some creepy campfire-style mythology.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure what the Toll Man’s modus operandi is. It’s clear he wants a dead body as payment, but his methods of psychological torment play as mere exploitation rather than legitimate scares. Visions of parental suicide, abuse, sexual assault, and unwanted pregnancy are thrown at us, but Spencer and Cami are so thinly drawn that their traumas register as little more than shock value. The Toll Man also has minions who look like the illegitimate children of the Oogie-Boogie Man from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” At one point, they use the parking camera in Spencer’s car to show a series of cue cards with messages on them. “This isn’t scary,” I thought. “This is ‘Love Actually’!”
And that’s the problem. “The Toll” is not even remotely scary, despite its setting in the woods and its tiresome dependency on jump scares you can see coming from a mile away. Topplin never convinces us that he’s anything less than a creep, so it makes Cami’s trust in him suspicious. Then the twist at the end makes most of what we’ve seen beforehand either irrelevant or nonsensical. The toll to be collected here is 80 minutes of your time. The most terrifying thing you can do is pay it.