Described as a slow-burn ‘70s-style horror movie, YellowBrickRoad certainly delivered on atmosphere. What it didn’t deliver on was making any kind of sense, or providing an adequate/satisfactory ending. With an extremely limited release this week as part of Bloody Disgusting Selects, YellowBrickRoad struck me as particularly offensive in that it failed to live up to its awesome potential.
Up until the last 20 minutes of YellowBrickRoad, I thought it was shaping up to be one of the better indie horror movies I‘ve seen. And then, like so many others, it concluded with a nonsensical, abrupt ending. I’m not sure why indie horror films have a problem with endings. So many low-budget, high-concept horror pics I’ve watched have built great atmosphere and tension just to end with a dismal sputter.
The story’s set-up leaves plenty of fertile ground for the imagination to roam. A group of investigators decide to solve a 70-year-old mystery about a missing town. Back in 1940, the entire population of the small town of Friar, New Hampshire, dressed up in their best and walked up a woody mountain trail, never to return. The remains of over 300 townsfolk were discovered later by the U.S. army; some slaughtered, some frozen to death, and still hundreds unaccounted for. The investigation was closed and covered up, and the town slowly rebuilt.
Teddy Barnes and his needy wife Melissa are determined to solve the mystery and write a book about Friar. Though the government has held the documents involved in the mystery classified for years, in 2008 they suddenly are released. Armed with the coordinates and other documents, Teddy prepares to re-trace the trail called Yellow Brick Road.
He forms his research party, which includes two professional cartographers to read the coordinates and map their route, and a psychiatrist to makes sure everyone involved in the trek stays in good mental health. Once they find the trailhead and begin their journey, things take a strange and deadly turn.
Like I said, the atmosphere is great and the scares are subtle but chilling. As odd things begin happening against the backdrop of wooded wilds, the group begins to splinter. The music, which in this film plays a major role, is one of the most effective horror elements. It is a slow build tension, and when the violence starts it is jarring. The mood is set from the very beginning by a vignette of black and white photos of the remains of Friar, and a tape recording from the military investigation that sounds both authentic and creepy. A man is giving details about the investigation and interviewing one of the only survivors, who is pretty much incomprehensible except for a few disturbing words.
Perhaps this feature film debut from co-writers/directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton suffered from being too allegorical. With a name like YellowBrickRoad, audiences expect some kind of allusion to film classic The Wizard of Oz. In fact, one of the elements I appreciated about the film was the attempt at allegory. There is the band of travelers who are wandering a path, and who cannot go home. Also there is the name of the trail itself, and the assumption that something, hopefully answers, is at the end of it. There is also the feeling that someone is manipulating the situation, a man behind the curtain so to speak, and that the environment itself is dangerous.
Beyond the allegory and atmosphere, the story fails on many levels. Ok, it’s creepy, but it makes little sense and the ending is completely unsatisfying. Instead of answers, the audience is treated to a random scene meant to shock and scare instead of giving any plausible explanation for preceding events. What could have been a multi-layered story of horrors becomes a senseless rambling that ends with a gruesome clip of nonsense.
I spent a good two hours after I watched the film trying to figure out what the heck it all meant. I ran all the crazy theories I could think of through my head, from secret government psychological experiments, to parallel dimensions. But after weighing all the clues and everything I had seen, I finally came to the conclusion that it just made no sense. Or the little sense it did make, Bermuda Triangle-meets-Hell-Dimension, or the we-make-our-own-hell angle, was tired and clichéd. The writers simply either got lazy, or they had a great concept and idea but they didn’t know how to lead it to a plausible ending.
While there’s plenty to be said for leaving audiences thinking, if your concept or story simply makes no sense then it shouldn’t be made into a movie. Period. YellowBrickRoad is a great film for the horror fan who loves creepy atmosphere and subtle scares but doesn’t care too much about logical conclusions. In my opinion, this is a film for the intellectual masochist.