It was the chief criticism of otherwise great media experiments like Lost and Twin Peaks: too much of the evocative and ethereal, not enough meaningful evidence and explanation. By the time both of these successful TV series reached their end, audiences were more confused than content? Who killed Laura Palmer? What, exactly, was the smoke monster? Was Bob a demon, or part of Leland Palmer’s disturbed personality? Was the island really a kind of purgatory/lay-over, or something else all together? It was their own fault, really. You can’t set up something as inherently interesting and narratively complex as these shows and ever believe you can deliver on the denouement. You seem destined – nay, doomed – to fail.
Such is the case with the otherwise extraordinary horror effort yellowbrickroad. Written and directed by first time filmmakers Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton, it offers up an intriguing premise – a group of explorers retrace the footsteps of a decades old local legend, hiking a secluded forest trail where hundreds of people up and died…or just plain disappeared. Within said setting, it then plays psychological games, merging film and fantasy, fiction and the frailties of the human spirit to drive the modern expedition to the mouth of madness. In the end, however, the ‘why’ just can’t match the ‘who’ and ‘how’. In fact, it’s safe to say that no conceivable conclusion could have wholly satisfied.
Melissa (Anessa Ramsey) and Teddy Barnes (Michael Laurino) are a successful couple with a noted book on the paranormal under their belt. Hoping to uncover the mystery of a small town in New Hampshire, they hire map writers/readers Erin (Cassidy Freeman) and Daryl Luger (Clark Freeman), ask best friend – and psychology professor – Walter Myrick (Alex Draper) to come along, and hire intern Liv McCann to do their dirty work. Along the way, they pick up forest ranger Cy Banbridge (Sam Elmore) and local girl Jill (Tara Giordana). Using outdated information and legend, they stumble upon the path. Labeled “yellowbrickroad,” it purports to be the final resting place for over 570 residents of nearby Friar. As they move deeper and deeper into the dense and disturbing wilderness, they soon learn why…sort of.
In retrospect, it shouldn’t work. It’s The Blair Witch Project without the shaky cam originality and bump in the night terrors. Yet thanks to a wealth of found fear, a brilliant backdrop, increasing levels of suspense and tension, and a terrific set of performances, yellowbrickroad does succeed. It places the viewer alongside the rest of the ill-fated expedition and includes them on every facet of the dread filled ride. While the characters aren’t particularly sympathetic and the storyline slips in and out of logic, the overall effect is one of disorientation, horror, and anticipation. We want to understand what is going on, to find a reason for the nonstop ’40s music in the air, the odd magnetic compass readings, the lack of accurate GPS, and most importantly, what’s exactly at the end of this long and winding road.
Needless to say, the journey is infinitely more satisfying than the rationale eventually provided. At an hour and forty minutes, yellowbrickroad isn’t beyond letting things play out in determined, deliberate fashion. It’s not going for the cheap shock or the standard thrills. Instead, it builds of layers of believable fear, focusing on the moods and mistrust within the group. This is especially true of the first scare setpiece, when an otherwise friendly couple come to a horrific end. Similarly, the supposed resident know-it-all reveals something about her source of information that makes her motives all the more suspect. As the anxiety builds, characters start obsessing on thoughts of murder…and killing each other.
All of this prepares us for quite a finale – and again, that’s where yellowbrickroad comes up short. After a particularly nasty incident and manhunt, the gang decides to separate, taking their individual storylines (and conclusions with them). A couple are quite good. One in particular packs significant scare tactics. But one seems to drone on incessantly for no particular reason (the discussed discord was never really hinted at before) and another ends before it really starts. That just leaves the push for the Emerald City, the desire to see what’s at the end of this mysterious and maniacal trail. Milking it for all they can, Holland and Mitton fall into a pattern of false stops, making us believe more than once that we will never really achieve a kind of payoff we expect.
Without going into details or spoilers, the ending doesn’t work. Its callback to a conversation about a bad dream seems redundant and the setting suggests something the film doesn’t begin to address. Yes, there are allusions and references to The Wizard of Oz and movies in general, but the juxtaposition between cinema and storyline is suspect. In fact, a film like Wild at Heart does a much better job of capturing the “no place like home” hokum of what lies over the rainbow. Here, it’s just a reference point, one of many that make their way into and through yellowbrickroad. Holland and Mitton could just as easily be riffing on Elton John or gay subculture and we’d be none the wiser. The title is just that – a mostly meaningless metaphor, intriguing but without the necessary connective clarity.
Still, that doesn’t completely dissuade one from thoroughly enjoying yellowbrickroad. We come to recognize these individuals and put ourselves in their often uncomfortable shoes. We sense the isolation and beauty-awfulness of the endless wood. There is some blood, some violence, and a whole lot of psycho-sicko innuendo. In the end, the movie crawls under your skin and settles in, unlocking your own set of mental ambiguities and phobias. If endings can save an otherwise below average storyline, than logic dictates they can destroy brilliant ones as well. Up until the reveal, yellowbrickroad is very good indeed. Afterward, it’s fine, if flawed.