Every now and then, there comes along a really good scary movie that manages to combine or change up conceits and make it work. Yes, this stands in opposition to my contention that a good scary movie should find a narrative line and stick to it, but when a well-made film manages to upend your expectations or provide something aesthetically novel, it can make for some breathtaking filmmaking. Martyrs comes to mind, as do Cthulhu and The Descent. To that list, I'd like to add Yellowbrickroad, a powerful, well-executed exercise in creeping madness.
In 1940, everyone in the small town of Friar, NH up and left. They walked away from their houses, from meals on the table, from their lives, to head up a trail outside of town. Rescue parties found nothing but corpses - some dead of exposure, more slaughtered by an unknown hand, many more completely missing. Eventually, the town was repopulated. Curiosity seekers came, but nobody could find the trailhead, and the locals weren't about to tell anyone. Friar is a town with a secret.
Cy and Melissa, along with their psychologist friend Walter, have made a long-term hobby out of the study of the Friar disappearance. They've hit a lot of dead ends, followed up a lot of fruitless rumors and false leads. But finally, after much hammering away at New Hampshire bureaucracy, Cy has managed to secure the original case file with the coordinates for the trailhead. This is big. The three of them organize an expedition, adding forestry expert Teddy, mapmakers Erin and Daryl, and medical intern Jill to the team. They're fully equipped and supplied, they're all competent hikers, and their purpose is clear as they set off for Friar.
The locals in Friar are appropriately surly and insular - not just for a shunned town, but for New England in general. So when the GPS coordinates they have for the trailhead dead-end at a movie theater in the middle of town, it's like the town itself is trying to give the expedition the cold shoulder. One local - Liv - takes pity on the group and promises to show them where the trailhead is actually located if they take her along. She's got her own gear, she knows how to get around in the woods, she won't be a burden, she promises.
Good to her word, Liv shows them a trail up into the high country, marked with a stone that says "Yellow Brick Road" on it. Apparently, The Wizard of Oz was a big local favorite. Daryl and Erin take sextant readings, write down coordinates, do the math. Cy takes photographs, and Walter runs everyone through videotaped tests of cognitive function to make sure the expedition isn't getting to them. It's a long trail, and the further in-country they hike, the longer it seems. Daryl finds a hat - it's old, definitely from 1940, but looks like it was abandoned earlier that day. It freaks everyone out a little.
They hike further in, and begin to hear music. It's from The Wizard of Oz. The GPS tells them they're somewhere in Bolivia. The music gets louder. Walter tests Cy, asks him where he was born.
"I was born…I was born on the trail."
Yellowbrickroad does a good job of making you feel the weariness and isolation of the protagonist's situation - they're prepared, they're geared up, they're competent, and none of it matters. When they fall apart, it's messy and slow and sad. You root for them to stick together, but there's a dreadful inevitability to it all, and the worse it gets, the weirder it gets. It'd be too simple if they were just picked off by some unknown evil, one by one. It's less like they're singled out and more like they're at the mercy of some natural event that's as unnatural as possible. There's something wrong about these woods, and there always has been. This isn't a "who will survive" movie. This is a "how bad is it going to get" movie, and the horrors it has in store unfold implacably, until the breaking point is reached, at which point it gets even weirder, and even worse. These people wanted to know what happened to the town of Friar in 1940, and they get their wish.
Don't get me wrong, there are couple of missteps - for a movie that relies on a slow, deliberate buildup of dread, some things happen a little too quickly, and it's noticeable. The practical effects in one scene are just clumsy enough that it takes you out of the movie for a minute, and at a pretty crucial point too. Although these are disappointing blemishes, the movie as a whole does a good job of bringing you back in by being visually striking and inventive, using simple effects (and excellent sound design) to create an almost Lovecraftian sense of cosmic terror. The whole third act is a headlong plunge into nightmare, and by the time the credits rolled, I was out of breath. There are far worse things than being lost, than being unable to go home. There are trails that sing and call to you, trails that come to an end somewhere beyond time, space, and sanity.
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Available on Netflix