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YellowBrickRoad. 2010. Directed/Written by Jesse Holland & Andy Mitton.
Starring Cassidy Freeman, Anessa Ramsey, Laura Heisler, Clark Freeman, Lee Wilkof, Alex Draper, Tara Giordano, Michael Laurino, and Sam Elmore. Points North. Rated R. 98 minutes. Horror/Thriller.
There’s always something fun and interesting about a horror movie that tries to take a part of literary history and craft it into a real story. While of course this is not a documentary, the premise of the film tries to take an element from The Wizard of Oz and involve it with supposedly true events. Now, Friar, New Hampshire is not a real location. It is a fictional place. But what I do enjoy about YellowBrickRoad is that, within its own universe, it attempts to bring that old familiar L. Frank Baum tale into a real life situation.
I don’t think that this is necessarily a great movie. However, I also don’t believe YellowBrickRoad is without its merits. The ending is a slight letdown. All the same, there’s a decently creepy atmosphere throughout much of the film, as well as the fact at times I found the plot to be unpredictable, in the best sort of way.
According to the film’s own folklore, in 1940 every last man, woman, and child in the settlement of Friar, New Hampshire – 570 odd people – walked up through a trail heading into the mountains and the bleak wilderness. They left everything behind, from personal possessions to money, only taking the clothes on their backs. No one understands why, as they were never heard from again. Until a few hundred were found dead, most frozen to death; many others were mysteriously butchered. The remaining citizens have still, to this day, never been found.
Then in 2008, the supposed coordinates to the “Yellowbrickroad” trail were released. Researchers plan on heading up to the trail. A sizeable group pack their things and head out into the trail, moving towards the heart of the woods, but what they will face is nothing any of them could have ever prepared for. Instead, they all begin to hear old music seemingly playing out of a gramophone, unseen in the forest, and the further in they go the stranger things become.
“What if the people of Friar believed this was the road to some god? Some Wizard, or something to stop the war from ever coming.”
“You can ask the Wizard for anything, can’t you?”
In her book The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness, Bernice M. Murphy says this: “the horror [in films like YellowBrickRoad & The Blair Witch Project] pivots on the desperate fear of losing oneself in the wilderness. The further the characters stray from ‘civilization’ and towards the intangible something that lurks at the heart of the American forest, the further they stray from their daylight, or rational ‘original‘ selves” (p.1).
This perfectly describes what happens throughout YellowBrickRoad, as each of the people on the expedition begins to experience a separation of self. We begin to witness, after a certain point, the dark side of each individual, as if the further they go on down the trail the worse they become.
The music is what precipitates all the weirdness which begins to happen. Once they first hear this, afterwards follows memory loss, disassociation, and complete, utter madness.
Slowly what happens is that they start to see the forest itself an evil, malevolent force. But again, as Murphy points out in her book they’ve “gone looking for trouble in the forest, and [have] been horrified to find it” (p. 2). This movie almost speaks in a way about our curiosity in regards to stories such as this – we are curious, we want to find something horrible and terrifying in the little rural towns, in the forest trails and abandoned locales, just as the researchers here are hoping to find horror and insanity somewhere along the trail in the forest. When they do come upon it, of course, they’d never thought what happens could ever possibly happen. Yet, still it does.
As far as the horrific elements in YellowBrickRoad, things pick up quickly. I was actually surprised when things kick off between brother and sister duo, onscreen and in real life, Erin and Daryl (Cassidy & Clark Freeman). Things got insanely vicious and also bloody, so I’ve got to give it to the filmmakers: this movie is far from amazing, but still has some punch.
Naturally, once this happens they all realize the horror of what the “Yellowbrickroad” trail may hold further along.
I’ve got to say that the acting wasn’t particularly incredible stuff. A few of the actors held their own, however, for the most part this is where the film is really lacking. Perhaps if the actors were a tad stronger then it may have helped things overall. At the same time, it isn’t all bad. The actors give it their best shot and some scenes come off well. The problem is that with a plot needing tons of emotional weight in certain sections, you really need the actors to elevate the material in order to grasp an audience, and in turn then hold onto them for the rest of the film. If not, you sort of get lost and bored with the emotionality of it all. I found myself wanting to skip through a bunch, honestly, but I never do that. I always trick and stick with a movie, just for the sake of it; takes a lot of people to put together a film, tons of time and effort, so the least I can do is watch the whole damn thing, no matter how good or bad. If YellowBrickRoad had a more solid cast I feel as if the script would’ve come out better onscreen and the weight of the story might have resonated more.
Do need to mention Anessa Ramsey, though, as I’ve enjoyed her ever since first seeing The Signal; a kickass movie in which she’s excellent. So I’d say she is probably the most solid out of the cast here, which is good because we see some decent and intense at times scenes out of her character.
Most of all, though, the ending puts a terrible damper on this movie. As of late, I’ve reviewed a couple movies – The Canal, The Last Broadcast – which both suffer from the tragedy of poor endings, albeit the latter more than the first.
YellowBrickRoad does itself a huge disservice with the ending. While I do enjoy an open ending, there’s also a way to do it effectively and without making you feel as if you’ve watched a whole 98 minutes only to discover nothing at all. There’s a difference between an open end and a complete lack of resolution in any sense; you don’t have to tie everything up in a neat little bow, at the same time you can’t expect to make your film enjoyable with a poorly thought out conclusion.
My problem with the ending is this – even if you want to make things feel circular, or as if they’ve wandered completely into another world of some kind, the way this ended did nothing for the rest of the film or the plot. I just don’t dig how they brought things back to that theatre.
I have to say I loved some of the visuals and camerawork. For an independent film, this really did a good job with a few trippy scenes. For instance, at one point there’s this screeching sound that knocks them all over. During that sequence, there are neat visuals which throw you off-balance. Plus, nice shots of the landscape looking all at once bright and shadowy, both gorgeous and ominous all together. There are plenty more indie horror films which don’t have near this amount of decent cinematography. They could’ve easily went for another found footage style horror movie, but the work from cinematographer Michael Hardwick is a much better option; what probably would have ended up as shakiness, screaming, and other typical fare of the lesser found footage films is instead real nice to look at. This is something that at the very least lifts YellowBrickRoad above all the general trash out there.
In the end, I think YellowBrickRoad is a 3.5 out of 5 star film for me. It would be much higher, if not for the ending, and if there had been some better performances aside from that of Anessa Ramsey. Though the actors hold their own enough, it could’ve had more of a heavy impact if the plot played out through some nicer acting. Regardless, it’s mostly the ending I’m not a fan of. If it weren’t for the finale, I’d probably say this was awesome. As it stands, it’s decent. That’s enough, though. I’d definitely watch this again some other time, as I had fun.
My biggest rave about this one is how it incorporates Baum’s Wizard of Oz in a bunch of different ways. It’s a fun twist and puts this a head above of a lot of modern horror. With improvement it could have came off much greater. It’s still an enjoyable hour and a half despite all its issues.