YellowBrickRoad did something no horror movie has done in years, possibly decades: it woke me up with nightmares the night I watched it, to the point I could not go back to sleep. I wound up sitting in bed reading something “light” to be able to eventually go back to sleep an hour or so later.
The premise of YellowBrickRoad is that in 1940 an entire town in New Hampshire all got dressed in their good clothes and began to walk up a previously unmarked trailhead, into the wilderness. Several dozen, possibly over a hundred bodies were found up to a week’s walk into the woods, many with signs of violence. There was only one survivor, apparently gone mad, hearing things no one else could hear. But the bulk of the town’s population just vanished without a trace.
In the modern day (they assidiously avoid mentioning dates, although the IMDB page says it was supposed to have taken place in 2008. I don’t recall seeing or hearing a specific year), a group of people looking to write a book about the disappearance begin to walk the trail, dubbed the “YellowBrickRoad” by locals (because the film “The Wizard of Oz” had been left on the projector in the theater). The government file they receive gives them false coordinates for the trailhead, directing them, instead, to the local theater, but they find a local woman who agrees to take them, if they’ll take her with them.
This isn’t a perfect film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is effective. It’s part of a handful of films where the slow pacing and character development A. work and are B. necessary to the plot. That said, their presentation of gender roles could have been improved by swapping one or more of them. My main problem with most horror is its slavish devotion to gender roles, particularly within its own tropes. And while I think a little “shaking it up” via playing with gender roles could have made this a better movie, not doing that did not ruin it for me. I’m just sitting here thinking how much more effective two of the scenes would have been had the genders been swapped.
The characters are: Teddy and Melissa Barnes, who have co-authored books like this before. They are the driving force of this expedition. A brother-sister cartography team, Erin and Daryl Luger, played by real life brother-sister actors Clark and Cassidy Freeman, who are there to map the terrain which has been largely ignored since the disappearance in 1940. Daryl is kind of a goofball/borderline douchebag who thinks he’s funny and Erin is much more serious. Walter Myrick, the Barnes’ best friend, who is a psychologist monitoring the team. A park ranger from the area, Cy Banbridge, acts as a guide. The aforementioned local woman, Liv McCann, who tells Teddy that her grandfather knew people who had disappeared, which is why he agrees to bring her along. And Jill the Intern, who is young, female, and has a bad case of hero worship for Teddy Barnes.
None of the cast are “names” per se, but they’re all very good and do a fantastic job.
As they walk along the YellowBrickRoad, their behavior begins to get erratic and exaggerated. Daryl’s humor gets meaner, the intern cries a lot, Melissa gets bossier, and Teddy gets both scared and more obsessed.
The further they move along the trail, they start to hear music from the 1930s/40s, subtly at first, maybe not even really music, but more of just an aural pareidolia, but soon it becomes clearer and clearer, to the point of deafening. Sound is used to excellent effect in this movie, to soothe, to lull, to startle, to unsettle. The use of sound is fantastic.
Violence is used sparingly, at least until the last half of the movie, when it is used to incredible effect. The initial violence is set off by something incredibly mundane, making the out of proportion nature of it particularly compelling. When you make to that scene, you’ll understand what I mean, and the psychologist’s reaction is perfect: “They were arguing about the hat.”
At one point the local woman admits that she lied. She grew up there, but her grandfather didn’t know anyone who disappeared. She does know why they went, so does everyone in the town; because they saw a way out. A terrifying, dangerous way out, but a seductive one all the same. She says, “It feels like the trail knows you, understands you. But that’s also the scary part.” It’s a hell of a commentary on living in a small, go-nowhere, rural town in the depressed areas of America. It’s more appealing to make your way down an “out” with an uncertain end and a high mortality rate, than stay in your dead end life with no money to leave and no prospects of something better.
I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but I have to say, the end of the movie felt like a cop out to me I didn’t care for it at all. It felt like the writer was all, “Well, shit, I have to end this thing somehow, but how?” when letting Teddy just keep walking was a perfectly acceptable ending. Really, if the film had ended just after he let the piece of paper blow out of his hand and started walking again, I think that would have been a stronger ending than what we got. I understand why they did what they did, to give it more of a “twisty” sort of ending, and tie it in to the beginning. But I also think that was an unnecessary framework to the rest of the story. Also, I understand that American audiences are sort of “meh” on uncertain endings, but I don’t think the certainty served us any better.
Overall I enjoyed the hell out of this film. It kept me gripped, the character development was, the pacing worked with, not against, the story. The actors were all fantastic. The use of sound and of violence were masterfully done. There is not a lot of gore, except for select scenes, so if your thing is graphic sprays of blood, you’re largely going to be disappointed. I am not opposed to graphic violence when utilized well, but I’m not married to it, particularly if it’s used as a substitution for plot. I would definitely watch this again. In the daytime. Not alone. In fact, I’m kind of looking forward to doing it, to see what other nuances I missed first time around.
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