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'The Toll' Review: A rideshare with a monster

Michael Nader's 'The Toll' puts a supernatural twist on the horrors of never knowing what secrets your Uber driver might hide.

The Toll Man cometh in 'The Toll."
(Image: © Saban Films)

Our Verdict

'The Toll' struggles to maintain its mysterious allure as both creature elements and the film's driver-passenger suspense dissipates in a rather off-balance finale.

For

  • 🏹 One or two solid spookies.
  • 🏹 An attempt at original cryptid lore.
  • 🏹 Shot well, authentic character awkwardness.

Against

  • 🏹 A bit jumpy of a narrative.
  • 🏹 Scares wear thin.
  • 🏹 The finale just doesn't work for me.

When reviewing something as middle-of-the-road as The Toll, a writer often frets. We know readers expect incendiary prose and biting critiques, but the truth is, The Toll is a split-decision experience sliced symmetrically down the middle. I applaud choice sequences from writer and director Michael Nader's rideshare horror tale but remain frustrated by its otherwise vanilla execution. Some woodland tree-passageway landscaping evokes a very Blair Witch or YellowBrickRoad eeriness, while character designs overplay a continuous relationship that beats the whole driver-passenger mystery to death. As I said, positives and negatives in equal baskets—apologies if that's not the emphatic criticism bred by online engagements.

Cami (Jordan Hayes) has just landed after a rather stressful travel experience and requests an app driver to shuttle from the airport to her father's home. Spencer (Max Topplin) accepts and pulls around in the dead of night to find he'll be driving into the "boonies." Smalltalk is awkward; Spencer pries a bit too uncomfortably, Cami clutches her pepper spray just in case—all the hallmarks of an unsure woman in a vehicle, alone, with a stranger. Things worsen when Spencer follows his GPS down an unmarked stretch of Nowheresville pavement, where his car breaks down. Cami's assumptions begin to spiral, but Spencer swears he's a good guy with wrong directions—and that's when the "Toll Man" appears.

Nader draws paranoia from a gendered standoff that plagues women who think twice about ordering an Uber alone, especially after certain hours. The Toll belabors the uncertainty between Cami and Spencer from the moment his leery eyes dart into his rearview mirror to assess an all-too-pretty passenger. Spencer comments on her picturesque app profile, attempts to bond over parental divorce, and a host of other socially inept red flags that are driven over and over like nails into a coffin as both stranded victims are forced to establish trust. The Toll Man knows this, and the Toll Man exploits wafer-thin stability between Spencer and Cami as a means of societal trauma unable to be undone. It's a healthy starting point, given inherent character conflict based solely on predatory insinuations.

Enter Mr. Toll Man, a cryptid who could be distantly related to The Bye Bye Man or Slender Man. Legend claims he preys on death and welcomes those with its stench into his purgatory. In Spencer and Cami's case, only one can leave alive. A solid foundation supports The Toll, but dare I say Nadar doesn't use the Toll Man to his full potential? Scares are all genuine as the Toll Man appears behind either Spencer or Cami when a flashlight aims its beam, this scarecrow-ish figure in a cloth hood with inkblotty designs looming as to impose. I understand the film's desire to play more within the realms of Spencer and Cami's innermost turmoil. Still, with such generic frights otherwise—boogiemen writing messages on dirty windshields—the less terrifying thematic moments distract with lacking impact. Roadside haunts are abandoned on a whim to make meaningful, albeit too-late asides when the third act should be gaining momentum.

That's not to denounce Cami's encounter with her alternate self, nor the harrowing experience she relives. It's more the timing of it all and a finale with wobbly pacing that introduces illusional mothers in plague masks and a heavy reliance on whip-crack editing that does speed into some unsettling jolts. The flipside is how these formulaic moments of frenzy miss nightmarish authenticity, forced by technical sneakiness that may provide enough stimulation for some viewers, but leave others analyzing crossed wires. The broken-down waiting game becomes a hike into Spencer and Cami's subconscious, then we're sprinting back towards the automobile—Spencer with his hunter's bow at all times—only for a final scripted "twist" that whizzes by the target. My most significant issues are with a horror film that so desperately wants to be unexpected but assures itself into an inevitable corner I can't expand upon but would happily launch into spoiler conversations in private.

The Toll is reminiscent of countless RedBox titles that score themselves as background sleepover entertainment. Direct your attention towards the screen at signature moments and the Toll Man will shock, or body bags will flop onto dirt paths, or imaginary fetuses will bloodily slam against locked doors. Michael Nader produces a rather inspiring highlight reel—unfortunately not representative of The Toll or its inability to sustain both unsafe rideshare commentaries and creepypasta allure. An experience that feels unfathomably familiar despite folkloric originality attempts fumbled on the goal line just as the clock winds down to zero.

The Toll is available to stream now.