“One morning in 1940, the entire population of Friah, NH walked north up an unmarked trail into the wilderness. Some were later found frozen to death. Others were mysteriously slaughtered. Most, however, were never found.”
It’s legends like these that usually mean we’re about to embark on another Blair Witch journey into the woods in search of some deep dark secret. It means it’s time to brace yourself for some “found” footage. It’s going to be shaky and rough and leave your eyes or head (or both) hurting by the time the experience is over. Thankfully, co-directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton decided that they could tell the same kind of story without taxing the endurance of disorientation of their audience, at least not in a visual sense.
“Among the classified records is this audio recording of a lone survivor, conducted at the outset of the investigation.”
After hearing the rough audio, we soon discover that these guys are going to tax our ears and not our eyes. It’s actually a clever turn of the genre that only gets terribly annoying at one point and thankfully not for long. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Teddy Barnes (Laurino) and his wife Melissa (Ramsey) have teamed up with their long-time friend and psychologist Walter (Draper) to assemble an expedition to try to discover what happened to the over 500 residents of Friah in 1940. They all think it has the makings of a great book, so they assemble a team that includes a brother and sister navigation specialist team of Daryl (Clark Freeman) and Erin (Cassidy Freeman). The team also includes intern and medically trained Jill (Giordano). The team assembled, they head to the small New Hampshire town to look for the trail that these people took into oblivion. The research indicates that the trail begins at a local theater, where they pick up popcorn seller Liv (Heisler) who can show them the trail marker. The marker is inscribed with the words Yellow Brick Road. It isn’t an allusion to a hit Elton John album, but the fact that a reel of The Wizard Of Oz was found still running on the theater’s projector when the residents disappeared. Now the team is truly off to see…well, something.
Along the way Walter continues to video-record psychological tests on the team members. He asks them to do things like associate smells with colors and recite the alphabet in reverse. At first it seems he’s doing this only to slow down the film and bore the tears out of the audience, but we eventually learn that he’s recording subtle breakdowns in the team’s cognitive skills and sanity. It appears they are all going just ever so little crazy. Still, they push on. Then they are assaulted by mysterious 1940’s music blaring from the forest depths. The music appears to gain volume at opportune times as a kind of attack on the team. Eventually, no one has a complete basket of marbles, and only Teddy appears completely determined to reach the end of the trail.
If you’re looking for much action or killing here, this is definitely not the film for you. The horror is most decidedly a mental one. The breakdowns are subtle at first and don’t lead to the kind of blood, gore and mayhem you might be hoping for until almost the end of the film. Sound is very much a weapon in the movie as we pretty much are warned about in the early “found” audio clip of the 1940 survivor. The music apparently gets inside of your brain and eventually turns the victim violent. Most of the time the music is merely creepy, but there is one point in the film where the team is assaulted by feedback. I’m a musician, and years of training have created an instinctual hatred of feedback. I guess it might be an effective or clever device, but it totally removed me from the well-crafted atmosphere of the first half of the movie.
And that’s the rub here. The two directors have actually crafted a rather nice atmospheric film for themselves. The production values are quite good, so we’re not distracted by low-budget camera work, intended or not. The locations are atmospheric and the guys shooting this stuff have a good eye for capturing the feel of the place. Sound design is equally as effective with plenty of creepy moments. The music, while out of place, will give you a certain chill from time to time. Add to that a pretty solid cast and you have the makings of a pretty good film, overall.
“Does all of this scare you?”
Where the movie loses its way, just like the expedition in the film itself, is that it tends to lose focus. There are too many times that the movie tries so hard to appeal to the art-house crowd. You just know that they were hoping to spark some high-class debate among audience members about the meaning of this or that. It’s a reach and frankly more than a little pretentious. It’s a good movie with plenty of fine assets when the directors aren’t trying so hard to deliver abstract art. Nowhere is that more obvious than an incredibly bad ending. On the commentary they refer to it as their death poem. When I want poetry, I’ll go to a coffeehouse. Leave the poetry on the cutting-room floor, please, guys. The last ten minutes are nothing more than filmmakers pleasing themselves and having a laugh at our expense. They had me, even through the rough spots, and then decide to flip me the bird for my trouble. Gee, thanks, guys.
yellowbrickroad is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. There’s no question that the film is wonderfully shot. The locations look exceptionally natural, and the film has a nice realistic color palette throughout. The black levels are a little better than average, so the film delivers some effective scare moments in the dark. Compression is a slight issue, but not distractingly so. The image provides a nice balance between a documentary look without looking too much like bad camcorder footage.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is essential to your enjoyment of this film. You will not get even a remotely good scare out of this movie without a good sound system. The sound design is where a lot of the atmosphere resides. A lot of attention is given to ambient sounds. It’s not just what you hear but how you hear it. The music has an ethereal quality that does work most of the time. Dialog comes through just fine most of the time.
There is an Audio Commentary with the two directors, and they really do a lot of patting themselves on the back.
There’s talent here and a real understanding of what can scare you. I just think these guys get caught up in doing things that sound cool when they’re talking among themselves but don’t always work on screen. They could have benefited by having someone else direct what they’ve written or added another voice that wasn’t part of their “cool” group. I think this film is worth a look, but it might be the kind of film you need to see with other people. I imagine it plays better at festival and horror convention screenings. Try and find it in that venue if you can. There’s definitely something here, but “It’s not something you could write a book about”.