Monday, January 2, 2012

Somewhere Over the Rainbow (you might go crazy)

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.


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.


High Notes
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!

Low Notes
Aforementioned ending

Lessons Learned
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.


  1. I think I know what's on the far end of the yellowbrickroad, the thing that drove so many insane and to death!...Street Fighter: The Animated Series! Since I'm reviewing all 26 episodes of that this month I can't say there's much hope for me, I fear the madness!!!!

    Even though I'm currently now too mad and dead to keep talking, I read someone's theory about this film on IMDb. They thought that the forest's insanity-'n-murder effects was caused by an American World War II experiment. Whaddya think of that theory?

  2. This is another film on my to watch list, which seemingly has fallen under the radar since it's release date was announced, much like Saw on a plane aka "Panic Button" which ultimatly lost it's way, as you rightfully stated most modern horror does.
    Still will have to try and track this one down.

  3. Chris: I already want to rewatch the movie. THAT'S how you street fight! As far as that theory goes, I'd have to rewatch it with that in mind. I can't remember the exact dates of the first ill-fated woods folk, so that would be one signifier. I don't put too much weight in that explanation because the last scene seems a tad more (SPOILERISH) supernatural.

    Elwood: I know not of this Panic Button, but I'll look into it. I think the final flaw of a lot of modern horror is such an odd and unfortunate trend. Think of how many times you say or hear others say "I loved it! Until the last scene..." For YellowBrickRoad, it's a shame because the rest of it is SO good. I'm really hoping I see something else in the ending on my next watch, but regardless, it's a total recommend.

  4. You know what? I just watched the movie (which is why I'm in such a big Street Fighter mood) for the FIFTH time! And it wasn't for a review or anything, it's just that rewatchable! In fact, I want to watch it again now! haha!

    Something horrible has happened though! I'm two episodes into SF: TAS, and I opened the youtube links to those two episodes to get notes for my the reviews...and they were down! For some reason, the channel user took all 26 episodes of all times!! And I don't think there's another way to watch these online! I'm gonna have to temporarily set up a youtube account so I can message this guy to put them back up!

  5. The movie is just SO much damn fun. It GETS itself, and it's a pure joy to sit back and smile at. I can't stand when people just roll their eyes at it. Check out the Gentleman's Guide to Midnite Cinema's review from about two years ago on it. First time I'd heard such positive talk about the movie, and I'm glad to see it garnering a bigger cult audience as time goes by.

    Oh no on the series! Hope it gets back up there! What sour luck. Although you could just rewatch the movie...

  6. I couldn't agree more, though finding that alot of films of late are setting up a great premise and then realising they don't know were to go next, which normally means that randomness ensues (and not in a good way either).

  7. Sad but true. Like there's always ONE piece missing, and it always comes at the end when most viewers walk away remembering it the most.

  8. Thanks for the review! I'd never even heard of this film, but will go add it to my queue now (Already suffering from Netflix overload, we got a new streaming player for Christmas that now connects us to Vudu also, which opens up a whole new labyrinth of streaming horror). About the 2000's horror flicks, I do think there have been good ones (even though I generally prefer older horror). Shaun, I Sell the Dead, Trick R Treat, [REC], Let the Right One in, and so on. The funny thing is that not one of the films I like has that most annoying feature of 2000's horror, the "big twist". Ever since the Sixth Sense, I have come to hate the big twist... Its like every horror filmmaker now thinks they MUST have some sort of tragic/ironic/loopy twist at the end, where Final Girl discovers she's really just a character in "Days of our Lives" or whatever, and this twist fixation has become a real deadweight on the genre. IMHO, anyway :)

  9. Man, now I wish EVERY new horror film ends with a discovery that involves Days of Our Lives. Bring back Vivian Alamain!

    And I agree that there are quite a few good to great 21st century horror films, and yes, there does seem to be such an annoying urge to shoot out a final act twist. I guess we can blame the 6th Sense and studios' misunderstanding of what made that such a hit. It's a shame, particularly when the movie would be absolutely fine on its own terms.

  10. Your brother looks so thrilled to be there lol. I caught the trailer to this movie on some other movie that I was watching, and paused it long enough to add it to my queue. I didn't read all of your review yet, but I'm glad it gets your stamp of approval. I will have to watch it soon.

  11. I definitely agree with your sentiment about this movie! I absolutely loved it up until the end. I still have no idea what the ending was all about, I haven't had a chance to re-watch it, but I will totally watch it again at some point and maybe things will make a little more sense.
    I also have a fascination with Roanoke, and am always intrigued when a film explores that type of premise.

  12. Heather, I have no idea what that munchkin said to Tim but CLEARLY it was unfortunate! And I would definitely advise to not read any more until after you see the film. It's a good 'go in with nuthin'!' kinda movie with some strange and unexpected turns.

    Glad for the solidarity Emily! And Roanoke is such a great story, I just wish it would get full film treatment. Vanishing on 7th St. tries it, but the movie is such a sluggish bore that it's not even worth it from that point of view.

  13. Personally, I felt like the filmmakers didn't know where to take them film next. The end feels rushed and abrupt. I still haven't seen a coherent explanation (that's not a stretch) from any reviewers. The best that I can come up with is that the man at the beginning set them on their fateful course, and no matter what happened, they were going to be lead to their demise. But all the imagery at the end doesn't make sense either. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!! *head explodes*

  14. I just had a strange and sad realization - Almost all of my favorite horror films of the last 10 years are internationals. Hardly any made in the USA. Poor Trick R Treat seems about the only exception.... Geez, that's embarrassing.

  15. Yup PoT, I've got nothing theory-wise for the ending. Hoping a rewatch helps that, but even if it doesn't, I still loved the ride!

    Trever, wanna know the sadder part? Trick R Treat is TOTALLY Canadian!

    There are some good Yankees out there...May, the Dawn of the Dead remake, Deadgirl, Hostel 2, Slither, The Mist...yes, foreign horror has been superior, but I'm an optimist (or else we just kidnap Canadians and beat them until they're not polite anymore and can pass).

  16. I don't know when or if I will ever see Yellow Brick Road, but I am definitely intrigued. Oz (1939) is, without question, my favorite film of all time. My familiarity with it is such that I could glance at the picture from Blockbuster Video and immediately think, "Oh, hey, it's Margaret Pellegrini." (Immediately followed by: "And look, it's the poster for Dream a Little Dream.")

    Also, I was struck by your reference to the Roanoke Colony, because that's a story which has stuck in my mind for years. I remember it coming up oh-so-briefly in history class and wishing the teacher had spent just a little more time on it.

  17. Wow Wayne, I am impressed by your ability to identify Margaret! The other one there that day was named Fern, but I'm sure you already knew that they traveled in pairs in the early 90s!

    Man, we're all loving this Roanoke Colony talk! I think there's something to that mystery coupled with the fact that it happened during such a harsh time. I just watched Meek's Cutoff, a good drama about the Oregon Trail, and I just kept hoping it would also go in that direction. It's the mystery of how such a large amount of people just seemed to have VANISHED. I like to think any story set between 1600-1900 where a whole population disappears has some Roanoke elements, if only because it makes it more intersting then to me.

  18. I looooooooved this film including the ending. Thanks for the positive review Emily. If I'd believed IMdB or Rotten Tomatoes, I'd never watched what is certainly one of my favorite horror movies of the last year. I don't understand the haters. Is it because the film has a subtext? As to the ending, it was set up early on with clues about the worn out Wizard of Oz reel, the original trail entry location and the era's music when the original disappearances took place (pre-WWII depression). The use of that music and sound, as you pointed out, was amazing and quite relevant thematically. Thanks again for highlighting this one, it was both disturbing and imaginative.

  19. Glad to hear more people enjoying it Shiftless! I think between the poster art and premise, it'd be easy to lose YEllowBrickRoad in the shuffle of straight-to-DVD dullards, but it really was refreshing! I'll pay closer attention to those clues on my next watch.

  20. I have been teetering on watching YBR for sometime. Something about the film's title and the Netflix cover art is appealing, but I was concerned about its quality as I have read mixed reviews. I'll probably just give in and watch it now that you have given it a minor seal of approval.

    Also, that picture is incredible, especially since there is a great chance that the lady was probably lying about being in The Wizard of Oz, and she was just some sad, lonely old short lady who wanted to talk to some nice young children. Sorry.

  21. Please give it a try Matt. I'm genuinely curious to see what you think of it.

    And don't say such harsh words about Margaret! Wayne Kotke already vouched for her identity and my childhood is fragile.

  22. Is that Fern Formica in the photo? I met her at a "Wizard of Oz" screening many years ago. She was all dressed up in her little outfit and flower-pot hat, croaking "Hey Charlie, gotta cigarette?"

  23. I *think* it's Margaret Pellegrini, although Fern Formica was with her. Somewhere in ye olde Intravia photo album is a shot of both of them, as they both showed up at Blockbuster that day. I love the fact that they still go around in full Munchkin costume!

  24. Finally got around to watching this last eve (recalling your review and desirous of something "different" to watch). I thoroughly agree: it was an intriguing film that seemed to meander off the road at the end. I still have no clue what happened from the point that the gloved hand dragged the blonde away...

  25. I'm still planning on rewatching it. Because yup, I still have no real idea what happened around that point either! But still found it effective...even if I'm not entirely sure what it was going for.

  26. finally got to this last night - yep late as always - and, so many feels.
    i had a vague recollection of your review of the film being posotive, so i finally sat down to watch it on instant last night.
    I was loving it - fairly well shot, interesting, well drawn characters, interesting premise.
    I did however, start to worry about where he film was going as the third act wound on - i wasn't sure if it was going somewhere or if the film makers had written themselves into a corner.
    A shame really as a poor ending can kill a film. My missus is not as forgiving as i am and the ending just made her disklike the entire film - pointless was her word. Which i think is valid - i really liked so much about the film, but yes, if it's invaliddated by the conculsion, what's the point?
    Grumbling aside i really did like a lot about the film. I think that's why i hated the none ending so much.
    As for my own theory - i'm not sure, but i thought it was something to do with the fact that the lead that ends up in the cinema was the only one to throw down some money at the begining.

  27. Oooh I like that theory! It's actually a message against illegal downloading!

    Yeah, I rewatched it a few months ago and found myself in the same boat. I could make up theories for the ending, but none are really satisfying. For me, the first 99 minutes were actually strong enough that I can ultimately forgive the film. I wish it had a stronger ending just so I could recommend it without the caveat, but I can live with it.

  28. You've mentioned this flick several times over the years and piqued my curiosity, even though I hadn't heard of it anywhere else. I liked it! I didn't even hate the ending. The theater guy was a lousy actor but I love a nightmarish "now we are in hell forever" ending, a la Fulci's 'The Beyond." So thanks for the recommendation!

    1. Yay! It really is one of my favorites of recent years, but I just always recommend it with a disclaimer because I know how much that ending irks some people. So glad you enjoyed it!