YellowBrickRoadis a competently made horror film – decently performed, wonderfully shot, nicely worded, engaging in premise, and at times, incredibly frightening. This is crucial. Far too many horror movies are metaphorically bloodless in their efforts to scare audiences. Instead, filmmakers will kowtow to the seemingly insatiable appetite for masked killers, dead teenagers, awful one-liners, and female nudity. Even if it freely borrows elements from The Blair Witch Project and a Stephen King novel, this movie represents a newer and, I would argue, healthier attitude: Rather than beat an audience over the head with cheap thrills, you instead toy with it on a psychological level. We all know that the mind can conceive of things far scarier than anything from a special effects lab.
To be sure, YellowBrickRoad does have its fair share of gore and violence. It simply doesn’t revel in them. Mostly, it plays tricks on us, leads us into dark corners with only a flashlight, and peers into the lower recesses of the soul. It turns nature into a shadowy canopy for long-buried secrets and forces beyond our comprehension. It leads the characters on a path full of unpredictable twists and turns, and the further they go, the deeper they descend into madness. Writers/directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton make no real effort to justify or rationalize anything that happens, which I think was the point; the more unexplainable the events, the more hypnotic the story becomes. They perhaps take it a little too far with the ending, which is confusing in the most conventional of ways.
In what seems to have become a commonplace plot device in horror movies, the film opens with title cards describing a tragedy of the past. In 1940, all 500-plus of Friar, New Hampshire’s population inexplicably walked up an unmarked mountain trail that led into the wilderness, leaving behind personal effects such as hats, clothing, and money. An investigation led by the U.S. Army turned up a grisly scene; many of the residents froze to death while others were mysteriously slaughtered. The rest were never seen or heard from again. There was, however, one survivor, and his voice, along with the voice of an interviewing officer, provides a chilling soundtrack for a montage of vintage crime scene photos that may have been staged but were damn effective. “Don’t you hear it?” the survivor pleads in agony. “Don’t you hear it?”
And with that, we flash forward to the year 2008. After obtaining confidential records under strange circumstances, a scholar named Teddy Barnes (Michael Laurino) assembles a team for the first official expedition into the Friar wilderness. The intention, of course, is to solve the mystery and write a book about it. Joining him are his wife, Melissa (Anessa Ramsey), a psychologist (Alex Draper), a brother/sister navigation duo (Clark and Cassidy Freeman), a young intern (Tara Giordano), and a landscape and wilderness guide (Sam Elmore). Although Friar has been modernized to some degree, it is by all accounts still a ghost town; the only apparent residents are the employees of the local movie theater. One of them, a concession clerk and projectionist named Liv (Laura Heisler), claims to have family connections to the area and insists on tagging along. Teddy reluctantly accepts.
And so begins their journey into the woods, one that will quickly give way to paranoia, mistrust, bitterness, and yes, even death. The navigators will continuously jot down coordinates, but there will come a point at which the numbers no longer add up. Off in the distance, phonograph music can be heard, and although we can make out definite melodies and lyrics, each song seems to be saying different things to different people. The music never stops, although it does occasionally stall. There’s a highly effective scene in which the team – and the audience – is aurally assaulted with piercing record scratches and bursts of loud music; the ambient noises have been drowned out. The team carries on all throughout the day, although they stagger like drunks, tilt from side to side as if the earth was shaking, and hold their ears with panicked, pained looks on their faces.
The film is not entirely unconventional. We can see this in the characters, who aren’t quite caricatures but are just broad enough to be archetypal. Liv, who was never that well developed, can eventually be counted on to say weird, ominous New England things. As far as Teddy is concerned, we knew all along that it was never really about writing a book, and this becomes increasingly apparent as he slips deeper into insanity. The psychologist’s methods are interesting, although I wouldn’t be surprised if someone found a way to discredit them. The young intern is superfluous, and the brother half of the navigation duo is defined solely by his annoying wiseass behavior. What impressed me about YellowBrickRoad were its technical merits, its ability to string me along with little to no information, and above all, the fact that it actually scared me.
*1/2 out of **** Whenever I write a negative review for a low-budget, independently-made horror film, I'm not lacking in encouragement towards the filmmakers. By all means, I do encourage indie films to be made in spite of their flaws. They can lead to eventual success. Or they can lead to more failure. And if they make money, that's great. There are many horror fans and they eat these kinds of films right up. I've seen indie horror films that are possible to like as well … more
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.