"I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I do, I do!"- The Cowardly Lion (The Wizard of Oz)
One Morning in New England, 1940, the entire population of Friar New Hampshire - 572 people - walked together up a winding mountain trail and into the wilderness. They left behind their clothes, their money, all of their essentials. Even their dogs were abandoned, tied to posts and left to starve. No One knows why. A search party dispatched by the U.S. Army eventually discovered the remains of nearly 300 of Friar's evacuees. Many had frozen to death. Others were cruelly and mysteriously slaughtered. The bodies of the remaining citizens are still unaccounted for. Over the years, a quiet cover-up operation managed to weave the story of Friar into the stuff of legends and backwoods fairy tales. The town has slowly repopulated, but the vast wilderness is mostly untracked, with the northern-most stretches off limits to local hunters and loggers. In 2008, the coordinates for the "YELLOWBRICKROAD" trail head were declassified...
And that my friends, is pretty much all the history or back story you are going to get from filmmakers Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton regarding the strange events at the heart of their cerebral, independent horror film, Yellowbrickroad. From the outset you should know, this isn't so much a story about discovery or revelations, it's a story about ideas and surreal concepts. Or rather, it's about the journey, not the destination. The mystery doesn't so much unfold as it does build. Think, David Lynch by way of Stephen King if they were both still enrolled in art school and had yet to fully harness their voices (perhaps an irrelevant comparison, as both men were arguably in full command of their creative muscles even then, but you know what I am saying).
Onto the scene and into this promising premise arrive our determined husband and wife team of Teddy (Michael Laurino, Past Life) and Melissa Barnes (Anessa Ramsey, The Signal), hellbent on unraveling the secrets behind Friar's mysterious disappearances for the purposes of a book they wish to publish. They quickly assemble a capable team of explorers that consists of their intern (Tara Giordano), a pair of cartographer siblings (real life brother and sister Clark and Cassidy Freeman), a representative from the Forestry Department (Sam Elmore), their close friend Walter (Alex Draper, Joshua, Mimic 2) who handily is a professor of behavioral psychology and lastly, a vaguely sinister resident of Friar with shadowy motives who is insistent on tagging along (Laura Heisler). Things start off promisingly enough (for both the team on screen and the viewers) as the pioneers embark from the trail head located within the town's dusty old Rialto theater (swoon) wherein it is revealed that the left behind copy of The Wizard of Oz has been re-watched to the point of unplayability. From there, the journey quickly moves into the encroaching New Hampshire forests and you know if you've seen even a handful of these films, that few if any of them, will be coming back.
What first appears to be a slow start to the proceedings reveals itself to be Yellowbrickroad's entire approach to the whole of its material. The director / screenwriting team of Holland and Mitton aren't interested in false jump scares in the least and bless them (to the best of my recollection) never once attempt to throw any the audiences' way. There are no threats bursting from the darkness of the woods accompanied by some bombastic musical stings here (there is no score either for that matter). No, their approach is to let the story's inherent creepiness slowly tighten the screws in both the characters' and our minds. It's an approach so applaudable in this day and age of CGI distractions and attention deficit editing that it's a damn shame they are only halfway successful at handling the film's deliberate leanings. They casually build to the films first unsettling occurrence (eerie music from another time and place begins to fill the air of the surrounding forest, stemming not from one isolated location but seemingly brought forth by the land itself) by allowing the audience to organically get accustomed to the characters for 30 some minutes. First with repeated scenes of them palling around campsites and then through the use psychoanalytic video interviews with their resident headshrinker (a nod to the found footage sub-genre that this movie amazingly resisted becoming). So when the aforementioned odd event finally does occur, it literally chills the blood with its implications of grander, nearly cosmic horror to come.
However, it is here where Yellowbrickroad takes a detour down the wrong path. Not only does the film never build on this initial event save to merely reuse it for most of its remaining running time, but the film never builds to much on a whole. There is no third act race to the finish. There is no climatic showdown. All approaches which would be fine if the material from beginning to end were compelling enough to warrant this restraint. Unfortunately (and hypothetically) it is in concept but not in Holland and Mitton's execution of it. The thing of it is, is that Yellowbrickroad has a terrible sense of pacing.The film literally ebbs and flows for most of the last hour. Something rather startling will occur that will get our blood levels up and then the movie rewinds for more ponderous walking through the woods or introspective pit stops along the path. Again, an approach that has merit but not when the characters, despite the script's many attempts at their development, are so uninteresting (it doesn't help that the movie kills off its most lively lass first). This would've been the sensible approach considering that the threat on the Yellowbrickroad comes not from outside, but from within, as the winding, never ending trail our characters are traveling, literally begins to unravel their minds, turning them against one another in delirious fits of psychotic insanity. However again, the characters in question are just too damn drab so much of this falls flat. Honestly dear readers, I imagine the less patient amongst you will be bored to tears.
I've reserved my biggest complaint for Yellowbrickroad till last and that is this. Despite the film's many commendable attempts at subtle scares and a genuine sense of unearthly atmosphere, the movie on a whole is one big missed opportunity and nowhere is this more apparent than with the handling of its Wizard of Oz motifs that in truth, is the the flick's bread and butter. I was never expecting (nor wanting) a dark, horrific retelling of Victor Fleming's musical masterpiece (that film's source material by L. Frank Baum is at times ghastly enough). However, I can't wrap my head around why they would go some places (the scarecrow makes a frightening appearance) and not others (no Tin Woodsman, no Cowardly Lion, and most unforgivably, no damn witch). If nothing else, the prospect that the filmmakers had within their grasps the means to make some very disturbing creative salutes to that much cherished classic and then content themselves with plodding along rather then running with that opportunity, is wholly frustrating. I'm not telling anybody how to make their movie. I recognize my place. I'm the nerdy guy sitting in front of my computer free from having to say any of this to anybody involved in the film's production and they are the ones sweating behind a camera trying their damndest to make a mark with their tiny independent film. I get that. I appreciate and respect that dichotomy. But c'mon guys, ya couldn't have just gone for it? Just a little? Not even Toto? David Lynch's Wild At Heart had more Oz allusions and that movie wasn't even titled after a locale from that fabled land of dreams and nightmares.
In the end however (but not the film's end, that's just a lark) I did enjoy myself throughout most of Yellowbrickroad's running time (when I wasn't busy being disappointed that I wasn't getting blown away by it). Despite the filmmakers' mishandling of their own engaging concept, there is much to admire sporadically throughout for fans of dreadfully creeping ambiance. The aforementioned ghostly music really works for about a whole act at raising the hairs on one's arms before building to its (and the movie's) most fiendishly hallucinatory, brilliantly weird moment at the halfway mark (and yes, before retreating with its tail between its legs again). The actors are engrossing whereas their characters aren't so much. And Bloody-Disgusting truly should be applauded for making some very adventurous, outside the mainstream acquirements (Cold Fish and Atrocious wait in the wings while Rammbock is out now on DVD) for their new distribution arm Bloody-Disgusting Selects. It's a striking release tableau that many other likemided distributors could do worse than emulate (After Dark anyone). Even though this particular film is a mixed bag, it should be noted that after the film ended I spent the better part of an hour in bed tossing and turning it around in my brain. Partially criticizing the end result and partially applauding the fact that many of the film's finer moments really stuck with me. Recommended to the most accommodating of viewers, oftentimes Yellowbrickroad will likely frustrate you to no end, but because some of it works wonderfully, it will also make you think twice before stepping foot into those tree lined rolling hills. Even the seemingly serene and sunlit ones.
5 Skulls - The Best
4 Skulls - Very Good
3 Skulls - Good / Average
2 Skulls - Poor
1 Skull - The Worst