All summer long Bloody Disgusting and The Collective are running a horror series that will see a different movie play select AMC theaters on Wednesday and Friday nights of each month. The first entry in this experiment—a more modest and more engaging version of those After Dark Horrorfests—was May’s Rammbock: Berlin Undead, a mildly enjoyable but unsophisticated indie zombie lark. Upping the ante for originality and innovation on a taught budget, Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton’s YellowBrickRoad is June’s offering, and what a creepy little piece of work it is.
Eschewing tired slasher and torture antics for something more cerebral and mysterious, YellowBrickRoad sets up a premise that has a built-in, folksy creep factor. The movie actually opens with a spooky anecdote, part legend, part unsolved mystery. Back in 1940 the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire decided to go for a walk down the primitive forest pathways beyond their town. They left everything behind, and without warning wandered off into the wilderness, down to the last man, woman and child. There were originally 572 citizens missing; a search party later discovered the brutally decimated remains of 300 of them. The rest had vanished without a trace, leaving no reason or explanation for their exodus.
The film proper begins in modern day with researcher Teddy Barnes (Michael Laurino) and his team heading off into the New England woods to uncover the truth behind what really happened to the inhabitants of Friar. Armed with historians, a psychologist, and even a seasoned pathfinder, Barnes and company believe they will discover the secret of this 70-year old mystery. As often happens in horror films, while the ill-fated troop does find what it is looking for, the answer turns out to be a bit more alive and dangerous then they were expecting. Once the team ends up farther out from civilization, and further down their designated route, strange things inevitably start happening. Eventually, the mental duress and some unseen provocation start to inspire hallucinations, hysteria and even violence among the party.
If all of this sounds very similar to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, that’s because both films share a common jumping-off point; a modern expedition outfitted with recording devices shuffle off our modern stage into bordering forests and are sabotaged by arcane forces. The biggest drawback of YellowbrickRoad is that its’ just too structurally similar to the earlier film. The sound effects are more threatening than anything we physically see, particularly the eerie distant warbling of Bing Crosby ditties from the 40s; the navigational devices, including a GPS, fail and breakdown once the crew get really lost; the ultimate answer to these escalating events is also of a vague and abstract nature, never fully offering explanation.
However, what sets YellowBrickRoad apart from BWP and other would-be indie thrillers lost in the wood, is that it doesn’t hide behind gimmicks, hoping to generate fear and disquiet culled only from clever marketing and atmosphere. For a very goodly portion of its running time, YellowBrickRoad is a creepy and unsettling adventure that burrows deep down into our collective fears of the untamed unknown. That it jettisons the veneer of the faux docu, and places the audience in a plausibly confounding locale– ancient New England forests are more inherently fearsome than the relatively tame woods of Western Maryland—helps its sense of realism and grounded terror. When the madness begins, it’s challenging not to feel the anxiety revving up in your own reeling senses. Up until its frustratingly slight resolution, the film launches a full-out assault on our peace of mind.
Directors Holland and Mitton are relatively new to film, but have a background in theater. They use those skills to their benefit, drawing out some fine and believable performances from their mostly greenhorn cast, focusing the bulk of the film on how these characters operate when the world around them stops making sense. Smallville’s Cassidy Freeman is one of the best players, making the strains of paranoia and dislodged mysticism vibrate with human fear. The sound design, also layered in a way that suggests a background in live performance art, is easily the film’s best quality, so alive that it might as well be the primary antagonist. The best scene involves that creepy, inexplicable soundscape increasing in such crashing, dangerous decibels that it unhinges and terrifies the audience just as much as the hapless, frightened hikers. The moody, lonesome cinematography and the rustic setting move the film away from the smallness and claustrophobia of a stage play and create an atmosphere reminiscent of a 70’s existential potboiler like Picnic at Hanging Rock.
As for the blood, that’s here too. While YellowBrickRoad is mostly at play in the fields of the psyche, it bridges the world of interior mental anxiety and physical, primal aggression with intense, escalating sequences of abrupt violence. The film handles these scenes well, staging them as legitimately disarming and making YBR a toothier menace than most of its brethren. Although the movie and its mystery prove to be intense and intriguing, the journey’s end adds up to very little. It’s the same sort of problem that Larry Fessenden seems to have when launching his small scale stories of man at odds with his own nature and Mother Nature. The final turn of the knife is simply too ephemeral to fully justify the story itself. After spending the whole film running after a resolution, YellowBrickRoad settles into a David Lynch style discourse that doesn’t quench our curiosity.
Make no mistake though, for fans of psychologically unsettling tales of campfire dread, YellowBrickRoad is close to a must see. Watching the intrepid researchers hiking their backpacks into the dim shadow of the forest is reminiscent of Dorothy and her compatriots, arms linked, treading precariously down their own yellow brick road towards a gnarled and foreboding wood. Lions, tigers and bears, Oh my!