Friday, October 17, 2014

Slashtober 3-D (Part III): Curtains (1983) dir. Richard Ciupka

Logline: While in pre-production on his new film, director Johnathan Stryker (John Vernon) decides to ditch his old leading lady (Samantha Eggar) in a loony bin and invite six younger starlets to his private mansion for an intimate weekend of auditions to take her place. Unfortunately for the hopeful young actresses, they must contend not only with the exploitation and disappointment inherent in the film industry, but also with a scythe-wielding maniac in an old crone mask, looking to pull down the curtains hastily on each of their performances.

Crime in the Past: After securing the film rights to a hot new property, an aging actress prepares for the lead role by committing herself to an insane asylum to help with her method acting. Unfortunately, the director of the project decides to leave her there.

Bodycount: 8 hams who've overstayed their welcome get figuratively yanked off stage with a figurative hook.

Themes/Moral Code: Thematically, the film attacks the effects of show business on the female psyche. Simply put, showbiz (specifically, the men controlling it) drives women insane. First, women are driven mad trying to get into showbiz when they have to deal with the backstabbing of their equally desperate female competitors and the sexual advances of the male producers and directors who act as gatekeepers to employment (and who deem the women valuable not as talent but as young, warm bodies). Then, once (and if) they've entered into showbiz, the manipulation and exploitation continues, with actresses of all ages and levels of success putting their money, careers, and bodies into the control of the same horrible men, who are eager to toss these women aside once they've grown too old or served their purpose.

This is the combined fate of all our actresses in the film. Patti (Lynne Griffin) can't get a gig because she won't sleep with her directors. Christie (Lesleh Donaldson) has talent as an ice skater, but quickly learns that the only thing that matters in becoming an actress is her willingness to give away her body. Tara (Sandra Warren) has accepted her designated role as eye candy, and allows her exposed breasts to have more screen time than her voice. Brooke (Linda Thorson), an accomplished but somewhat older actress, is forced to embarrass herself by auditioning for (and sleeping with) the director. Finally, there's Samantha Sherwood, the aging actress who literally risks driving herself insane by committing herself to an insane asylum, Shock Corridor-style, all for the sake of the role and her beloved director, only to be rejected upon her return.

Can these women be blamed for going a little nuts? 

Killer's Motivation: The killer, Patti, is driven by her willingness to do anything to win the role, even if it means knocking off the competition in the most deadly of fashions. We also know that she's lost roles repeatedly because of her refusal to play the skeevy casting couch (er, casting Jacuzzi) game with sleazy Hollywood bigshots. (Or, worse yet, she may have lost roles even after submitting to the casting couch game.) As she's also a stand-up comedian, Patti initially seems the least likely suspect among the assembled women, and also the least likely to win the coveted dramatic role of "Audra." It's clear that Patti has a hard time of things being a funny girl in a Dramatic Actor's world, but the film never convinces us that this frustration would propel her into full-bore straight-jacket insanity, instead of the clear-headed insanity of cold-blooded opportunism. Nevertheless, into the straight-jacket she goes, and the last time we see her she's giving her glassy-eyed comedy routine to a group of patients in the mental ward.

The film's quasi-red herring is, of course, Stryker's former muse Samantha, who has the best excuse for insanity and revenge. The killer's outfit, including a droopy old hag mask, is obviously meant to further this suspicion in our minds, as it could very likely represent a visual projection of Samantha's inner feelings about herself, scared as she is that Stryker is right, and that she is a worn-out old woman whose career has reached its end.

However, the hag mask could as easily have relevance to Patti and her feelings about her own age and the state of her career. While not as old as Samantha or the also accomplished Brooke, Patti isn't exactly young anymore either, and her complete lack of success as an actress probably has her fretting when she sees a younger crop of actresses, like Christie, enter the scene. Patti knows that the time one has to flourish as an actress in Hollywood is very limited, and that even the relatively young can be seen as grotesque hags after too long.

Final Girl: The last girl standing is our killer, as there's no room for final girls in the cutthroat world of show business, wherein any moral superiority is soon corrupted. Early on, Christie, in her youthful naivete, seems the likeliest candidate for elevation to final girl status, but almost as quickly as we begin to think so, we find that she has jumped into bed with Stryker. The aftermath might leave her in tears of regret, but those will only get you so far in a slasher film. Specifically, in Christie's case, as far as the next scene.

Evaluation: In the storm of press that followed Curtains' recent and much-needed Blu-ray and DVD release from Synapse Films, many reviewers adopted the opinion of the film's cast and crew (as detailed in the special feature interviews and commentaries) that the film is an utter mess, the slipshod and barely comprehensible result of a troubled (director replaced! cast shake-ups!) and prolonged (3 years!) production. I think anyone who believes Curtains to be a trainwreck hasn't sufficiently plumbed the chaotic depths of low-budget horror cinema. 

Certainly, the film is saddled with some dangling ends (what's Michael Wincott doing here?) and abrupt switches of tone and style (massive re-shoots with a different [non]director will do that), but what continues to surprise me most about Curtains is how complete of a film it feels, despite its production problems. Patchwork as it may be in reality, there's a coherent story in the finished Curtains that builds to a cheekily morbid crescendo. Along the way, the film is dotted with surrealism, satire, melodrama, cheesy exploitation, tasteless fake-outs, genuine chills, flashy setpieces, and mind-numbing chase sequences. The film crams in every commendable and lousy attribute that characterized the early '80s slasher, and the truly remarkable thing about it is that this strange brew feels intentional, as if it were all business as usual in the constricted, hysterical world populated by the vile Stryker and his batty ingenues. Editors Michael MacLaverty and Henry Richardson deserve a lot of credit for molding the disparate footage they had into the film's relatively cohesive whole.

Unlike the fun but fairly rote Prom Night (producer Peter Simpson's other major contribution to slasher cinema), Curtains is a unique and (mostly) classy affair, steeped more thoroughly in the austere tradition of classic Agatha Christie murder mysteries than in contemporaneous dead teenager flicks. (Mark the hallmarks: a mostly adult cast of characters! a posh, isolated mansion location! wicked betrayals! bitter jealousies! a Ten Little Indians plot structure!) Add to this sense of class a healthy dose of self-awareness (the film proper is credited on-screen to the director within the film! the plot of the film itself appears to mirror that of Stryker's script! meta fake-outs galore!) and a handful of masterfully constructed slasher setpieces (icecapades! doll in the road!), and you're looking at one of the most satisfying, stylish oddball slashers of the subgenre's halcyon days. Even if its seams show.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Slashtober 3-D (Part II): Just Before Dawn (1981) dir. Jeff Lieberman

Logline: Five young adults pack their gear in a van and head up into Oregon's scenic mountainous region to check out the property that one of their group, Warren (Greg Henry), has recently inherited. Unfortunately, the kids do not heed the warning to stay away, as given to them by kindly forest ranger Roy (George Kennedy) and his trusted horse, Agatha (Agatha the Horse). Thus, after crossing the rope bridge into terror, the group must contend with a maniacal killer (or is that killers?) in between setting up camp and skinny dipping.

Crime in the Past: Generations upon generations of inbreeding. Sure, sister-brother/child-parent coitus might not be against the "law" in their armpit of the woods, but it sure as heck turned out to be against nature. There are also faint intimations that the rural population of Oregon's mountain region has had disastrous run-ins with city folk before, though this possibility is not elaborated upon.

Bodycount: 6 souls are forced to "skadoot" from this mortal coil.

Themes/Moral Code: Being a backwoods slasher, the film tosses at us the standard issue urban vs. rural rigmarole. Warren, the leader of our gang of cool college city kids, is a "land baron" through family inheritance, and thus he and his companions believe they have a right to visit and occupy the forest and mountains for a weekend of fun. They don't stop to consider that the mountains might be home to any rural folk, and when they discover that this is the case, one of Warren's friends slyly remarks to him "Congrats, you're a landlord." See, these city slickers believe they can waltz into rural landscapes and take possession of them through use of their money and obscure legal system, and the film embarks on setting them straight (i.e. stabbing them). They'll learn that all the land deeds in the world don't mean squat if, as Sheriff Roy so eloquently puts it, "mountain can't read."

If you felt like stretching, you could also claim that the film has an environmentalist streak to it, arguing for the conservation of natural wilderness that is threatened by the encroachment of filthy, destructive human interests. For evidence, see the shot in which the boot belonging to one of the film's killers stomps down a piece of litter tossed onto the forest trail by the protagonists. Heavy stuff.

Killer's Motivation: Keep it in the family long enough, and that seed's gonna grow bad. Our killers are a pair of twins, and the products of inbreeding. (The birth of twins is a quite common occurrence among the mountain folk, we're told. We're left to assume why.) There's also the possibility that the twins are "devils" belonging to "the devil race," but what exactly that means isn't elaborated upon. Unlike their skittish but harmless peers, these hillbillies like to kill any and all intruders into their domain, for reasons unspecified. They're the strong, husky, mostly silent type. (Only mostly silent because they do frequently giggle out the raspy snicker of Muttley, Dick Dastardly's canine companion on Wacky Races [1968-1969].)

Though uncomplicated villains, they certainly are frightful when glimpsed as hulking, obscured figures in the background of various shots. Moreover, their dual identity lends itself to the film's best trick: the surprise revelation (about halfway through) that the killer we thought was flying solo had a wingman all along.

Final Girl: Our final girl for this particular jaunt into the madman-infested forest is Constance (Deborah Benson), Warren's girlfriend. She possesses many of the hallmarks of the archetypal final girl. She's attractive but plain and a bit tomboyish, maybe even prudish. (She's contrasted with the other female on the trip, Megan [Jamie Rose], who goes skinny dipping the first opportunity she receives (while Constance builds a campfire) and whines to the trees about the local wildlife thieving her makeup in the night.) She's a lover of animals. She's more responsible and cautious than her fellow travelers, wanting to abandon their weekend plans long before the others do. Finally, she's also the first to realize the actual danger of their collective situation.

But by the film's conclusion, Constance emerges as one of the more complicated final girls of the early slasher years. Like most final girls, Constance grows in strength and resilience against the killer, and she ultimately dispatches him through the reversal of symbolic phallic power. Here, this reversal is construed as a fist and upper arm straight down the killer's gullet, making her victory one of the most viscerally and physically powerful in the slasher's history. Yet, bizarrely, this adoption of stereotypically masculine strength comes at the height of her "femininity": this whole final sequence occurs immediately after Constance emerges from a tent wearing makeup for the first time in the film and dressed in Megan's booty-revealing shorts. Strangely, it seems as if Constance's more outwardly "masculine" characteristics were holding her back, making her, as she explains earlier in the film, helpless to save herself. Only by embracing her femininity is she able to become the Amazonian warrior she always was deep inside.

This is a total inversion of the final girl syndrome. Femininity is championed, and masculinity devalued. Where is Warren, Constance's cocky and superficially tough boyfriend, all throughout her fight with the surviving killer? He's lying on the ground in abject fear, cradling his wound and weeping, unable or unwilling to assist while his girlfriend completes the manly heroic task. After the conflict has ended, Warren (still crying and moaning uncontrollably) stumbles into her as she stands dazed but victorious over her vanquished foe. To her great credit, she doesn't hug him back.

Evaluation: Jeff Lieberman-- not the roboticist, of course, but the (hmm) auteur behind Squirm (1976) and Blue Sunshine (1978)-- created in 1981 what is quite possibly the finest backwoods slasher outside of the obvious prestige of the sub-subgenre's granddaddy, Deliverance (1972). Just Before Dawn isn't highly regarded by slasher connoisseurs because of its gargantuan body count or gnarly practical gore effects. The cast of victims is small, the methods of dispatching them far from outlandish, and the bloodshed minimal (though the film does have one particularly memorable piece of effects work in its final moments. Hint: gulp). Nor is the film esteemed because of wacky plot developments or a colorful cast of bit characters (though the presence of George Kennedy, with his horse Agatha and his amateur green thumb, doesn't hurt).

Rather, what sets Just Before Dawn apart from dopier backwoods fare like The Prey (1984), Don't Go in the Woods... Alone! (1981), and The Final Terror (1983) is its emphasis on capital "A" Atmosphere. Employing the classic (though rarely [successfully] imitated) Halloween (1978) style, tension and suspense dominate Lieberman's film, leaving the murders as punctuation marks rather than film-justifying setpieces. Instead, the film revels in agonizingly protracted chases through the forest and subtle, blink-and-miss glimpses of our lurking menace(s) at the sides of the frame. And speaking of John Carpenter, keep your ears perked for those pulsating Carpenter-esque synth chords that ring off the film's mountains. And speaking of those mountains, let's not neglect to note that Just Before Dawn is a vibrantly lensed film, despite its requisite small budget, thanks to the location shooting in Oregon's gorgeous Silver Falls State Park. Few slasher films have the means or access to fill their frames with to majestic waterfalls, and so they settle for filling them with exposed breasts instead. Aware of its advantage, Just Before Dawn gives you both in the same shot.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Slashtober 3-D (Part I):The Prowler (1981) dir. Joseph Zito

Logline: In the summer of 1945, the small New Jersey town of Avalon Bay was shocked by the gruesome double murder of two young lovers during the local graduation dance by an unknown assailant. Thirty-five dance-less years later, a group of college co-eds resolves to revive the town's abandoned graduation celebration despite the fact that it's the year 1980 and, as such, they'd probably all be happier off at a house party somewhere with a keg and "Funkytown" blaring on the stereo. Nevertheless: with the local sheriff (Farley Granger) away on a fishing trip, the combat-geared killer of thirty years prior is primed for his big, pitchfork-laden comeback. The residents of Avalon Bay are advised to check their bushes for The Prowler.

Crime in the Past: Can we fault Rosemary (Joy Glaccum) for ditching her GI boyfriend, off fighting overseas in World War II, through one of the era's many Dear John letters? She makes a strong case for her own innocence: she's a young girl, and she had resolved (okay, sure, "promised") to wait for her beau to return from the war, but boy that war sure is going on for a long time and she's not going to be young forever, you know? In this case, distance (or thousands of miles of ocean and war-torn European countryside) does not make the heart grow fonder. It's a bum situation, but Rosemary handles it with surprising maturity in her letter, which we have read to us through voice-over. She lets her unnamed high school lover down lightly, explaining her sympathetic dilemma and expressing her hope that they can still be friends when he returns. Rosemary's is not the best way to show appreciation for this particular Nazi-pummeling Defender of the American Way, but it's her choice, and she's honest, respectful, and realistic about their situation. 

So it's really rude that her former lover, upon his disembarkation from the Queen Mary, mails a pitchfork through the beating chests of Rosemary and her new boyfriend, Roy (Timothy Wahrer), at the 1945 graduation dance as his form of a reply letter. The USPS would deliver anything in those days.

Bodycount: 8 Dear... (er) Dead Johns.

Themes/Moral Code: In most ways, The Prowler's moral code is about as prudish as you'd expect: vodka, condoms, and rolling papers litter the trail to slasher hell. Bawdy college students of both sexes (though with special emphasis placed on the women) are punished for their transgressions, which are as various as flashing old men in wheelchairs, spiking the punch at the dance, and canoodling in the shower.

That said, the film does feature a few moments that undermine the typical slasher audience's expectations. For instance, consider the surprise arrival of creepy big lug Otto (Bill Hugh Collins) wielding a shotgun in the final act. Though a red herring for the killer in his early appearances, here he arrives as a hero, attempting to assist Pam (Vicky Dawson) in her tussle with the killer. "Attempting" is the key word, for Otto is almost immediately murdered by the killer after making his presence known, shattering our sense of momentary peace and prolonging the finale. With Otto dead and her boyfriend deputy, Mark (Christopher Goutman), lying unconscious in the other room, Pam is made of aware of the fact that the cinematic world she's living in is not one in which gallant men ride into the scene and save the day. This maiden will have to fend for herself.

Also reflect upon the moment that transpires just before the credits roll. Pam, relieved and exhausted after her victory against the killer, returns to her dorm room and discovers the still-living, lobotomized body of a friend of hers (and one the killer's victims) strung up in the showers. In this Carrie-inspired stinger, the poor boy reaches out towards Pam and the camera as if he were an undead creature, but in reality he's gasping for assistance. We realize he's been hanging around in that steamy tomb, hovering above his girlfriend's corpse with a belt around his neck, for almost the film's duration, and only now, at the conclusion, is his suffering allowed to end. This brief coda reminds us, in a rather chilling way, of the massive death toll that is often forgotten by the audience of slasher films and by the characters within them as the action rushes towards the final conflict. Forgetting the killer's demise and whatever little catharsis that brings, there's no happy ending in The Prowler. Just a lot of bodies.

Killer's Motivation: Our killer in both 1945 and 1980 is none other than our sheriff, George Fraser. His identity as the killer isn't exactly difficult to guess: the actor playing him, Farley Granger, is the film's only marquee name, and his early excuse of "Gone fishin'!" to explain his absence for the bulk of the film is about as subtle as "Gone slaughterin' the innocents!" We might imagine that his motivation for killing his ex-girlfriend Rosemary and her new, obnoxious boyfriend back in 1945 was due to rage and jealousy fueled by the misogynistic, macho bullshit expectation of men's possession of women as objects. Or, perhaps, we might imagine that he was merely homicidally offended that of all the other dudes she could have chosen over him, she chose the jackass Roy, whose proudest accomplishment is his access to his father's checkbook.

But, nah. This killing is no rational act. Georgie Boy seems to have suffered some sort of war trauma (witness his preference for killing in full combat gear) and has now psychotically associated it with the end of his romantic relationship. Suiting up in his murdering garb for him is like preparing to head into battle, and his enemies are young lovers everywhere. The revival of Avalon Bay's college dance awakens George's psychotic personality from its decades-long slumber, forcing him to relive that fateful night in 1945. As we see, he mistakes every girl he comes across for his once-beloved Rosemary, and thus must once again plunge the pitchfork into her heart and into his own.

The killer also seems to have a particular hang-up about young women submerged in water. That one I can't explain. He hates the juxtaposition of water as the symbol of purity with the nubile bodies of sexually-active women? We've dived too deep, I fear...

Final Girl: Pam is textbook. She's pretty, but not as conventionally pretty as her girlfriends. She's more motivated than her friends, as she demonstrates by spearheading the planning for the dance. She doesn't take part in the other teens' hanky-panky, nor does she imbibe alcohol or controlled substances. She's squeaky-clean. She's dating an older guy, Deputy Mark, and squabbles with him over his giving more attention to the other girls. (Perhaps, in grand final girl tradition, Pam doesn't put out.) Best of all, she's also an amateur sleuth, narrowing down the list of suspects quicker than the police manage to. When her strength is called upon, she goes at it with the killer and winds up blowing his face off with a shotgun. Pam is everything a final girl is prescribed to be, and that makes her a crushing bore.

Evaluation: The Prowler is a personal favorite, but I would never deny that it's an acquired pitchfork to the gut. Director Joseph Zito (he of Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Friday [1984], and a few Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and Gary Daniels action films) must have had a reputation on set for falling asleep on set and thus neglecting to communicate his directions to the actors. How else to explain the many unending sequences of characters aimlessly wandering through a handful of locations, discovering and accomplishing nothing? Could he have possibly imagined he was hired to direct a documentary on the formation of cobwebs? These laborious, suspense-free stretches of the film (seriously, they might make up as much as 1/4 of the running time) are so patience-testing that they're certain to turn off all but the most tolerant of viewers. In fear of having these moments transform the whole affair into cinematic molasses, editor Joel Goodman goes so far as to cut into them unrelated shots of the killer wandering around. But we're not fooled: this thing is padded, and it knows it.

But when it's not wasting our time, it's one the bizarro greats. Arguments for the defense: a) it's a partial period piece slasher, the most rarefied of its kind, b) it features some of Tom Savini's most brutal practical gore, and it utilizes these moments exceptionally well (like little shots of adrenaline to perk us up out of our collective slumber), c) and it boasts a wickedly bleak sense of humor that demonstrates a willingness to play around with the subgenre's conventions, even if only subtly (see: Themes/Moral Code section above or the opening "heeey, are you alive out there?!" type smash cuts, but particularly see Bill Nunnery as the character of "Hotel Clerk" about half way through the film, in one of the longest and most gleefully infuriating bits of character weirdness in all of slasherdom). The Prowler might suffer a few cuts and bruises while on its prowl, but it sure succeeds in breaking into my house every October.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

ESSAY: Who's S-S-Scared?: The Scooby Doo Gialli

The second issue of the Fang of Joy fanzine is hot of the presses (indeed, actual presses [of a sort] were involved this time!). Included within it, among fine pieces from Jose Cruz, Simon Wright, Brad Hogue, one Richard Glenn Schmidt, and many others, is a zine-exclusive essay by yours truly on a particular sub-subgenre of Italian horror-thrillers that I've christened The Scooby-Doo Gialli. Check out the first few paragraphs below and then watch a trailer I've prepared in order to get your further pumped up for your forthcoming purchase. (Is this the first time anyone has bothered to make a trailer for an essay? Is my pat on the back traveling through the post to me as we speak?):

"On Saturday morning, September 13th, 1969, American CBS stations aired “What a Night for a Knight,” the first episode of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! The series would run for 25 episodes, concluding on Halloween of 1970. Each adventure more or less invariably found the meddling teens and gluttonous Great Dane of Mystery Incorporated breaking down in some remote American township and catching wind of a supernatural baddie haunting the area. After much spooking, munching, chasing, and sleuthing, the gang would discover that the supernatural villain of the week was no such thing: it was, instead, always a human in an elaborate costume, scheming towards some money-making human end.

Then, in the early-to-mid-1970s, several Italian and Spanish giallo horror-thrillers—with titles like The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, The Etruscan Kills Again, and Murder Mansion—employed a similar structure on the silver screen, incorporating faux-supernatural menaces into their convoluted plots as cover for nefarious inheritance schemes and psychosexual serial murder. Sure, you’d be hard pressed to spot a van full of adolescent gumshoes anywhere in these films, but the preponderance of red-haired leading ladies and sandy-maned, ascot-wearing pretty boys is certainly suspicious.

Was it merely a coincidence that these faux-supernatural gialli began cropping up immediately after Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! concluded its run on television?

Well, probably..."

Read more by purchasing Fang of Joy Issue #2 for a low, one-time payment of $6.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part X): Toad Road (2012) dir. Jason Banker

Logline: After meeting James (James Davidson) and his close-knit group of drug-taking layabouts, the once clean-cut Sara (Sara Anne Jones) soon spirals into substance dependency. But when Sara begins searching for a high that will break down the walls of perception and elevate her into another realm of existence, James grows concerned about the radical shift in her behavior. He's especially worried about her desire to test out an old York, Pennsylvania, urban legend, that of the Seven Gates of Hell erected (literally or figuratively) deep within the woods. No one has made it all the way to the seventh gate and entered into hell, but Sara is determined to cross the barrier, with or without James' help.

Analysis: There's a strong temptation to read Toad Road as a stern note of caution against escalating drug use and addiction, but that would be ignoring the reality of the lives that the film presents us with: if not for the temporary release provided by drugs, and if not for the potential they might hold for opening up gateways to better worlds, then what else is there? We learn that James' parents are worried that his aimless, drug-taking friends are having a bad influence on him, but the truth is that James and his friends are drawn together because they're all equally unmoored from the lives expected of them. We see, particularly during Sara's induction into this group of friends, that no one in this ragtag group of kindred spirits is pressured into doing drugs. Rather, they all independently seek out the temporary escape from their lives that mind and senses-altering substances provide for them, and their association with one another is more akin to a support group than an influential social circle.

The film doesn't condemn or condone these young adults' use of drugs, but it does question the efficacy of their actions. Are they actually achieving liberation from their lives, or merely casting themselves into a sort of purgatory? As Sara explores her hunger for new chemical experiences, to the growing concern of even her constantly narcotized friends, she decides to discover the answer by achieving the ultimate high: an encounter with hell itself. She's determined to pass through the gates of hell symbolized by the town's local urban legend of Toad Road, which James references as a metaphor for the point of no return that one can fall into through irresponsible drug use but which Sara sees as a literal exit. This difference of outlook is the death knell for their romantic relationship, as James isn't brave (or misguided?) enough to take his recreational drug use and temporary sojourns from reality to their extreme. Instead, he imagines out loud the lives that he and Sara might be able to lead together: they can move away and start anew, he can go to college like her, and maybe they'll even get good jobs one day. Sara reminds him that she's failing out of school; she's moved far past the desire for leading a conventional life.

After Sara has slipped through the seven gates, abandoning James, her disembodied voice seems to report back with her findings. As she passed through each successive gate, a little bit more of her previous life-- her self-doubt, pain, disappointed parents, fractured relationships-- faded from existence, replaced by nothingness, through which she gained power. Past the final gate, Sara experienced the embrace of "a black void," offering "ultimate solitude." But, if so, how can she communicate this information from her state of solitude back to us, those imprisoned souls who have refused to pass into hell? Are these words we hear her own, or merely James' imaginings, as he's left behind with his guilt and numbness and only able to hope for the best? We never see the other side that Sara allegedly passes over to, nor the other possibilities it might have to offer, even if those "possibilities" are no more complicated than the oblivion accompanying death. What we do see is life grinding on for James and his wayward friends, and a decided lack of improvement in their situations. And, after long enough, not even the drugs help anymore.

Technical Merits: Toad Road exists as a curious hybrid of style and genre, in part documentary, found footage, low budget drama, and psychological horror. Director Jason Banker, who also wrote the film and acted as its cinematographer, blends Cinéma vérité documentary footage of his cast of non-actors going about their aimless daily business with scripted scenes of those same non-actors contemplating their actions, relationships, and futures. The obvious ease with which the actors perform in the authentic hangout and party scenes provides a nice thematic contrast with the discomfort they appear to display when grappling with the somewhat stilted dramatic scenes, as they endearingly stumble their way through the words written for them. Like the actors who portray them, these characters act more naturally when under the influence of the artificial haze produced by drug and alcohol consumption than they do within the confines of the scripted "reality" that forces them to consider their relationship troubles, family issues, poverty, and collective inability to lead "normal" lives. The film's style is such that the characters' words seem false and contrived whenever they're required to deal with existence beyond the next high or juvenile gag. And that's appropriate, because for them adulthood is a role for which they are poorly suited. When, in one of the film's scripted scenes, James lays out his sketchy plans for attaining a "normal life," he sounds like he's stealing half-remembered lines he once overheard from a bad movie. But when he's having Vicks blown into eyes during one of the many documentary sequences, and he breaks out in tears at the bizarre physical sensation it's producing within him, we witness an uncomfortable human rawness that couldn't be captured in the performance of any actor.

Relevance: This is reality horror. Toad Road captures the meandering, blitzed out lives of its very real characters with uncanny, documentary precision. Because the film is, in part, a document of its actors' actual lives, it also stands as a universalizing summation of the general malaise felt by so many emotionally deadened suburban teens and twentysomethings. I knew a version of every one of the film's developmentally stunted characters back in high school. Our parties looked exactly like the parties they throw (with fewer hard drugs, maybe), and our stunts and pranks were much like theirs. Our interactions were as shallow, and our prospects about as promising. We even had our own urban legend out in the woods, and our own ill-advised adventures bent on testing out its reality. The  film understands, as we implicitly did, that the societal expectations for those youths of the mid-to-lower middle class to develop into "normal human beings" can be crippling, and that the appeal of simply slipping away from it all, by aide of illicit substances or by some worse method, is difficult to ignore. That the film can't settle upon which fate is worse-- oblivion or the average life of an American adult-- points towards an existential horror that's far more chilling than any monster creeping in the forest.

The real life death of actress Sara Anne Jones from a drug overdose not long after the film's completion stands as a tragic, melancholy reinforcement of the film's observations, and it situates the fictional action as a truer reflection of reality than we might like to admit. Toad Road is haunted by Jones's ethereal image. (Eerily, the last time we see her in the film, she's swallowed up by a gigantic video distortion leading to hell, as if the medium itself has consumed both character and actress.) If we are aware of Jones's death going into Toad Road, her presence compels us to wonder about the validity of her character's claims. Is there an alternative to the existence we're pressured to embrace? Is it possible to enter hell and emerge out the other end, into the possibility of "something better, something real"? Or do we, in our search for that other plane of existence, only manage to kill ourselves, out of frustration, ennui, or fear? We can't possibly know. The fictional Sara and the actual Sara aren't around to tell us, and we're left, like James is, slamming our fists uselessly against the foundations of the unfinished structures we've built around us, hoping for it all to collapse but knowing it won't.