YellowBrickRoad caught my interest the moment I saw the eerie trailer, but its theatrical release was limited and I missed it. The film just came out on DVD, and it’s absolutely worth a watch. A confusing, unsettling, frustrating watch.
On October 10, 1940, the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire up and walked out of their homes, leaving behind all of their possessions and vanishing up a mysterious mountain trail marked only with a stone engraved “YELLOWBRICKROAD.” Afterward, 300 bodies were found by the military, some frozen, some burned, many slaughtered; the rest of the population was never found. Seventy years later, a remarkably attractive group of intrepid explorers sets out to compile research for a book on the Friar mystery, only to learn that the Yellow Brick Road is as treacherous as it is enigmatic.
The first thing you should know about this movie is that it features a glut of Wizard of Oz references, both overt and oblique. They are incessant. But if you can look past that rather irritating quirk, you’ll find a film that’s unusual and audacious. It obviously owes its premise to The Blair Witch Project, but the film differs greatly in style and execution. Although the crew’s exploits are documented by video and photography, so that it would have been a breeze to present the film as shaky “found footage,” YellowBrickRoad employs a solid budget of $500,000 very well. The movie’s filmed quite prettily, with saturated colors, interesting angles and well-composed shots. I like that this movie is bright and pretty. I think that’s one of the many unconventional choices co-writers and directors Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland made when they could have gone another, easier, more commonplace route. Dark and jerky is simple. To make a bright, colorful film that scares you is something else entirely.
As the group moves further into the woods, circumstances go askew. The GPS declares that they’re in Melbourne or Guam. Mapmaker Daryl, who’s tracking their progress, frets that the coordinates only make sense going forward. Behind them, or on either side, “the land is like liquid.” Everyone becomes a little high-strung. Soon a faint, uncanny ballad can be heard through the trees, and our little Oz-trekkers immediately lose their goddamn minds. The film’s audio design is top notch. The music and discordant sounds emanating from the woods are profoundly unsettling, and as the crew members try to block out the noise by stuffing their ears with cotton balls, the audio takes on a distressingly muffled quality. YellowBrickRoad, which already had an unreal, lulling aspect to it, becomes completely illusory. At this point I grew very pleased with my baller surround sound system, because this film was surely designed to be seen and especially heard in a movie theater.
YellowBrickRoad uses an interesting conceit that I think could have been developed further. The scientist of the group, Walter, documents everyone’s mental health with simple daily tests captured on film. He’ll ask his colleagues to meow like their childhood cat, to talk in gibberish for several seconds, to recite the alphabet backward or recall their earliest memory. As the insubstantial music deepens into something more sinister, we get to see the threads of their sanity slowly unravel. It’s worth noting that the characters all go different kinds of crazy. They split up, they fall apart, they turn violent or revert to childhood. The mostly unknown cast does a terrific job, delivering fervent performances that never turn excessive in the wake of the increasingly strained group dynamic. Cassidy Freeman (Erin) is the one actor I recognized from her time as Lex Luthor’s replacement on Smallville, and she’s great in the film, playing a character miles away from Tess Mercer. The filmmakers do a solid job giving us a real glimpse into these characters who have little defined back story. Teddy, the ostensible leader of the group, is obsessed with going further, with taking “one more day” to find answers despite the mounting difficulties, and his stalwart wife Melissa will go anywhere for him. Erin and her brother Daryl (Freeman’s real brother Clark Freeman) demonstrate the sort of exasperated love of truly close siblings. Townie Liv is desperate to fit in, to matter to anyone. Walter fears that after the expedition, they won’t be able to find their way back. Not the way home, but the way back to who they were before the music and madness of the Yellow Brick Road. Soon the violence takes over, and we know that he’s right.
Unfortunately, YellowBrickRoad is a movie without an exit plan. It makes a half-assed attempt to explain the trail, when no explanation at all would have been infinitely preferable. Shit’s crazy sometimes. The universe is often terrifying and always inexplicable. Can’t that be the lesson of a good horror movie? If YellowBrickRoad had been nothing but weird, scary and cryptic, I would have loved it. What I thought was the ending—Teddy crawling desperately toward some invisible, offscreen goal—would have been unsatisfying to answer-seekers but cool and creepy nonetheless. What was actually the ending—some metaphysical movie theater/hell analogy—seriously cheapened a film that could have been very good.
That said, watch the movie. It’s inarguably compelling, it has some cool gore in the shape of corpsed-out scarecrows and a leg that is fully and awesomely ripped off (!), and most significantly in its favor, it’s unlike any other movie you’ll see. What I like best about YellowBrickRoad is its audacity. It’s a big, messy, risky endeavor, and I firmly believe that with no risk comes no reward. While I can’t say that YellowBrickRoad is ultimately a success, I really enjoyed watching it, I’m still thinking about it two days later, and I definitely recommend it to horror fans. So perhaps it is a success, after all.