It might surprise you to learn that sandwiched between Dawn of the Dead and The Wicker Man, my second favorite film of all time is a little classic known as The Wizard of Oz. Allow me to display some photographic evidence of such:
Yup, that’s me with my big brother and a little Munchkin who visited a local Blockbuster Video in 1989 to sign autographs and pose for pictures with star struck second graders. Note that I am indeed taller. Note that I am also the same height today.
Moving on, there were two things that led me to queuing up 2011’s YellowBrickRoad on ye olde convenient Instant Watch:
1-Its clear connection to the REAL best film of 1939 (screw you, Scarlet O’Hara)
And 2-Like the great premised, terribly executed Vanishing on 7th Street, it seemed to play with the haunting idea of the disappeared members of the Roanoke Colony, something I’ve always found fascinating. Though YellowBrickRoad doesn’t explicitly name that nugget of history, the idea feels close enough that it must have served as some inspiration.
Quick Plot: Teddy and Melissa are married academic explorers who team up with their professor friend Walter on a research project of Friar, a town where 70 years earlier, the whole population followed a trail and came back dead. Though the locals are reluctant to drudge up the past, the team amasses a few more members (a map-making sibling pair, spacey intern, forest ranger, and New Hampshah townie) to follow the titular YellowBrickRoad into the woods while documenting their findings for a book.
Echoes of Blair Witch sound through the early scenes, but YellowBrickRoad is far more ambitious than it initially appears. First-time directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton tell a mostly straightforward narrative, though they occasionally mix in still photographs or recorded interviews throughout. Walter documents the heads of his team, videotaping each member discussing memories or reciting the alphabet backwards to gauge their mindset. As you probably expect, said interviews reveal the slow cracks in sanity that happen when you cross over into Oz.
Sure, YellowBrickRoad’s basic formula is familiar, but the execution is actually quite fresh. It begins with some old timey music, the low undertones of which are heard by the whole group in a ‘maybe we’re crazy, maybe someone’s messing with us, or maybe it’s REAL’ mystery that works because sound designer Daniel Brennan’s work is actually incredible. One sequence follows the group through a high-pitched beeping as they can only communicate on paper. It might sound annoying (and it is) but it’s also quite horrifying.
There are berries to not be eaten (and of course, totally eaten), water not to be wasted (until it’s used to put out fires that didn’t have to be started in the first place), hoarded candy stashes and unrequited love stories inside YellowBrickRoad, and honestly, that’s fine. This is the sort of film that’s culled from other sources, but Holland and Mitton--along with a far better than average cast—work hard to make it pop, giving each character his or her due and payoff.
MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW
YellowBrickRoad clocks in at 100 minutes, and unfortunately like so many new horror films, it seems to check out at 99. For the majority of its running time, the atmosphere—crafted on an effectively used low budget—is perfectly unsettling and each crescendo as terrifying or bizarre or weirdly humorous-turned-bizarre as intended. It SCARED me, and it’s not often that I can say that as I pluck the gray strands out before my 30th birthday.
But GRRRR did the final shot or two make me say GRRR. While there’s a good chance I’ll look at it differently upon second viewing and am more than open to hearing any defenses, I just found the film lost me once it left the woods. I don't have a theory on the ending yet--was it a twist? was it all about Teddy? Is he now in hell?--and perhaps I'll change my mind upon second viewing. It definitely says something positive to the film that I'm eager to give it one.
THUS ENDETH SPOILERS
THUS ENDETH SPOILERS
Sometimes you forget how important good acting is in a genre film. Though nobody channels Meryl Streep in YellowBrickRoad, there’s not a bad performance in the ensemble. We like (mostly) and most importantly, BELIEVE the cast, making their fates all the more devastating
I mentioned this back in the early Doll’s House days when reviewing The Signal (also starring Anessa Ramsay, oddly enough) but it never fails: weaponless violence unnerves me. The first major bout of horror here is primarily made with one’s hands, and while other reviewers may have found it laughable, I found it horrifying in both a darkly serious and darkly comedic absurd kinda way. Likewise, verbal descriptions on neck snapping? Ick!
Berries are for squishing (or getting high)
If you already bare a striking physical and audio resemblance to Richard Dreyfuss, you might as well embrace it and quote some of his more famous Jaws lines when appropriate
New England ushers are generally jerks
Now streaming on Netflix Instant, I heartily recommend YellowBrickRoad to those who enjoy good modern horror. It will probably do little to sway those naysayers who despise anything made in the 21st century, but this is a sharply made horror film packed with pleasantly mean surprises, strong performances across the board, and a unique vision and ear that makes fantastic use of its look and sound. I’d sell my ruby slippers for a more satisfying ending, but I still heartily endorse YellowBrickRoad as an excellent block of evidence that there are indeed good genre filmmakers working today.