Yellowbrickroad (2010): Where The Dogs of Horror Howl
I'd been thinking about seeing Yellowbrickroad for some time now. After all, The Wizard Of Oz is one of my favorite movies of all time. So I couldn't pass up a chance to check out a horror film based out of L. Frank Baum's magical world. The 1938 classic film is not without it's own share of eeriness, and don't even get me started on how freaky The Wiz is. While I had no idea which direction Yellowbrickroad might take with the film, I was seriously hoping for some flying monkey action. Sadly, there's no wildlife on display, winged or otherwise, but there is scarecrow and a group of travelers on a journey to seek a legendary place. While none of it amounts to a horse of a different color, Yellowbrickroad still manages to shine in the dull world of modern horror.
In 1940, the residents of Friar, New Hampshire disappeared into the woods surrounding their tiny hamlet. Their bodies were later found frozen to death or mutilated along the trail. In 2008, the government finally declassified the location of the trail. So writer Daryl Lugar (Clark Freeman) and his sister Erin (Cassidy Freeman) lead an expedition into the woods to discover what drove the ill fated citizens of Friar to walk to their own doom. Along with a behavioral psychiatrist, a representative from the National Parks services, and local girl Liv (Laura Heisler), their trek starts peacefully enough. As they go deeper into the woods, their GPS fails, compasses become useless, and they are taunted by strange music coming from the woods. Pressing on, each of the party become affected by their surroundings, and soon tragedy strikes the group. Without a doubt, they're well beyond the rainbow, and no amount of heel clicks is going to save them.
In a simplistic way, Yellowbrickroad has much in common with the trips not insanity helmed by Werner Herzog. Much like the characters in Herzog's Agguire, Wrath of God, the group in Yellowbrickroad are explorers of sorts, but the deeper they get into unraveling the truth of their situation, the closer they come to unraveling into total insanity. However, unlike Herzog, it's done without a delicate touch. Directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton are both first timers behind the lens, but even with an ambitious character study as their debut, they don't entirely falter. They do a fine job of distinguishing the characters, providing suspense, and keeping the action moving. They also impressed me by not choosing to make their film in the found footage style. While it could have fit the story, as we all know, the style is played out and overdone at this point. Yellowbrickroad takes its biggest stumble in the film's last few minutes as it veers sharply out of Werner's wheelhouse and into David Lynch territory. I didn't hate the ending or love it either, but I feel it will be the most debated part of the film, and many will feel that it sullies what came before.
Casting real life brother and sister Clark and Cassidy Freeman as film siblings Daryl and Erin was a risk and could have felt like a stunt. The Freemans thankfully nail their roles and provide the grounding force in the film. Cassidy, who was a regular on Smallville and the short lived series The Playboy Club, and Clark's real life relationship brings gravity to both of their roles. Character actor Alex Draper has a few good scenes as the Behavioral Psychologist, and his moments monitoring the group's sanity are essential for the film. Actress Laura Heisler, who plays small town contact Liv, gives my favorite performance of the film. She brings a real dynamic to the role, and her character takes the most dramatic and surprising turn of the film. The rest of the supporting cast do well, but their characters tended to blend together, and at points it was hard to figure out which character was doing what thing.
While I began this piece comparing Yellowbrickroad to a low rent Werner Herzog film, perhaps the film it should be compared to is the 2003 French film High Tension. Not because of any thematic or style connection, but rather because the film's last few minutes could completely change someone's opinion on the film. While it didn't feel as much like a pulled rug as High Tension, Yellowbrickroad leaves the audience baffled and still with many, many questions. For me, it worked, but I can definitely see how some people will be put off by it. Placing even more footage well after 3 minutes of credits also doesn't add anything for those with the fortitude to stay around and watch them. I was hoping that Yellowbrickroad would take me somewhere to a magical land where original horror ideas are perfectly executed. Instead, it's a Kansas feature with its eye out for a twister to take it to the next level. However, I will definitely be looking out for what Holland and Mitton get up to next time.