Sunday, July 17, 2011

Yellowbrickroad: Miles To Go Before You Sleep

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."

It's a good movie that manages to make the wide-open spaces and big sky of the New Hampshire wilderness seem claustrophobic and oppressive. Small things go wrong, then bigger things, then even bigger things until the true scale of what is happening crashes in on us like the music that haunts their every step, crescendoing into suffocating, ragged noise. These are seven people drowning in the forest around them, being swallowed up by a wilderness that does not obey nature's laws.

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.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix


  1. Just watched this tonight, and aside from the great sound work (the music was like someone gave a bunch of 1940s 78s to Merzbow) this was AWFUL. Disjointed, pointless...two hours of my life I'll never get back.

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  3. Dude, the whole movie was just over 90 minutes.

    It had pacing problems and could have used a slightly larger budget, but awful? Like, worse than Mortuary?

  4. Watched this last night. I normally find parts in every movie that I enjoy and almost never give 1 star to a movie, but this movie fails in every aspect. I have enjoyed almost all of the movies that I have discovered form this site. I expect every movie reviewed on this site to have something to interest me, but this one doesn't. It surprises me that this site reviewed this movie.

  5. I don't give stars, I just watch movies and try to talk about what I do and don't like about them. I rather liked this one, flaws and all, and though plenty of people disagree with me, that's cool. I don't like movies lots of other people like either.

  6. i'd filed this one away since reading your piece on it last year and finally watched it last night. i'm definitely in your camp, Cliff.

    i thought it was wholly immersive and disturbing - the way they ended it left a little to be desired, but i can forgive that for the way the rest of it effected me. thanks again for pointing me in the right direction!

  7. I actually liked this movie quite a lot and I disagree with people complaining about the ending as well. As I see it, the whole point of this movie is that we don't get to know what the fuck is going on. Both the viewers and the characters are supposed to be on the same road, so to speak.
    Not knowing really is scarier then a plausible explanation, in this case, because, as CDE said, it tells us that maybe something horrible and incomprehensible is going on.
    Btw, just found out about this blog a few days ago. You have a nice taste, cliff

  8. Loved the psychological aspects of this movie. What it brought home to me was the idea that hell, true torment, is repetition, the gradual loss of hope, a way out. The characters were in the trail for maybe a week and they all fell apart.

    The idea of pride, of asking questions with no right answers or answers anyone would want comes to mind. The male lead, Teddy, wants to investigate the first disappearance and investigates things that are best left alone. As far as the ending goes, it was good for me, as it brought up the idea that all quests, even the bad ones, inevitably lead back to the beginning of the journey. The ending had the kind of idea of all Teddy's sins and stupidity being reflected back at him.

    Also liked some of the more...just random elements of this movie. One character is a little behind the others, and then she just goes 90 degrees right and walks straight off a cliff. No sound, no scream, nothing. And the other characters don't even notice. The scarecrow elements referencing the Wizard of Oz were also chilling.

    All in all, 8 out of 10.

  9. Resurrecting the comment thread as I work my way through the blog...

    I saw this about a year ago, and since then I'm always interested in hearing people's reactions to it, so it was neat to find a review here. I don't think it's a brilliant film, by any means; but it's one of those things that just got under my skin and stayed there. I don't think I'll ever forget certain images and scenes. And yes, the gnawing inevitability of it is part of what I found most compelling. Even some of the seemingly random elements-- like the intern walking off the cliff-- make perfect sense in that context, and far from being annoying 'WTF?!' moments, they felt peculiarly satisfying for me. I also found some of the unresolved implications (such as who put up the scarecrow and how) to be really chilling.

    That said, my biggest complaint about the film is that it isn't *better*. There's so much in it that worked for me that I think with a little extra effort it could have been genuinely great. Still polarizing, maybe; but most of my favorite films are. As it stands, it's a neat little movie that has a surprisingly strong cumulative effect, at least for me. In that respect and others, it reminded me a little of "Dead End", the Ray Wise/Alexandra Holden movie from 2003 with the exasperating ending; in addition to the generally disorienting atmosphere they share, both movies are better than they should be and not as good as they could be. Which, I suppose, is part of why they stick with me long after they ought to have faded.