(Note: the original plan was to review SILENT HOUSE today and YELLOWBRICKROAD next Monday, but the SILENT HOUSE review has been postponed until next week, instead.)
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: YELLOWBRICKROAD (2010)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A trail in the middle of the woods in rural New Hampshire. MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES are following the path through the forest, as music is heard over the horizon)
LS: Why are we here again? I hate hiking and camping and crap like that.
MA: We’re here to review the movie YELLOWBRICKROAD, which was made in 2010, but got some buzz on the independent horror movie circuit in 2011. I figured it was about time we reviewed it for Cinema Knife Fight.
LS: I agree with you, but did we really have to come out here in the middle of nowhere to do it?
MA: Well, the movie is about a trail in the middle of the woods, just like this one. So it seemed appropriate enough to me. Besides, as a New Hampshire resident, it gave me a chance to get out and explore some of the nearby flora and fauna.
LS: Next time, just take a book out of the library (slaps neck). Damn mosquitos.
MA: Naw, why read a book when you can actually be in the great outdoors? This is a wonderful setting for a review.
LS: If you say so. And what is that awful racket? That music is just irritating! I didn’t ask for a soundtrack.
MA: It’s part of the mystery of the trail. What is the YELLOWBRICKROAD and where does it lead to? Spooky, huh?
LS: Not really.
MA: I agree.
LS: Y’know, I just realized that I really hate nature.
MA: Why don’t you give us a synopsis of the movie’s plot. It will get your mind off the hiking.
LS: Okay. When YELLOWBRICKROAD opens, we learn about the residents of Friar, New Hampshire. In the 1940s, the entire town just picked up and walked out into the woods to follow a trail, leaving their homes and belongings behind. The majority of them disappeared completely, but a few were found frozen to death or murdered. Only one guy came back alive (there’s eerie old audio of him being questioned about it). No one knows what happened, but the search party that went looking for them set up a marker for the trail with a stone that reads: Yellowbrickroad. Just like the magical path in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939).
MA: I actually liked that eerie old audio. It was one of the few things about this movie I actually found creepy.
LS: Yeah, that was pretty cool. Too bad it only lasts a few minutes.
The whole thing was hushed up for 60 years or so, until the files on it were declassified, which is where the modern-day storyline begins. Teddy Barnes (Michael Laurino) plans to write a book about the incident, and begins by picking up the recently declassified documents to use as a starting point. His plan is to find the trail, walk it himself, and try to determine what happened to those people back in the 40s.
He doesn’t go alone. He brings along his wife, Melissa (Anessa Ramsey), who will co-author the book with him; Daryl and Erin Luger (Clark and Cassidy Freeman), another couple who will be drawing maps along the way (the trail is not on any known map); there’s also a representative of the U.S. Forestry Service named Cy Banbridge (Sam Elmore); Teddy and Melissa’s intern, Jill Bateman (Tara Giodano); and a psychologist named Walter Myrick (Alex Draper), who is a friend of the Barnes’ and goes along to monitor everyone’s sanity. He is constantly filming people in the group and asking them to do things like reciting the alphabet backwards, speaking gibberish until he says stop, and other weird stuff, to keep track of everyone’s lucidity as the journey continues.
When they get to Friar, none of the locals will talk to them, and they seem to resent the fact that Teddy and his group are so interested in this particular bit of history. So Teddy figures they might as well just start off by finding the path. He checks the coordinates that are listed in the declassified files for the start point, and they end up at a movie theater in the middle of downtown Friar. They figure this can’t be right, since it’s not in the woods. So right off the bat, things are a little mixed up.
A local girl who works at the theater named Liv (Laura Heisler), is the only local who will talk to Teddy, and she agrees to help them find the path, as long as she can go along. They agree, and she takes them to the real starting point—at the edge of the forest—where the stone with the word “yellowbrickroad” carved into it sits, waiting for them.
The rest of the movie is pretty much a bunch of people hiking through the woods.
MA: Wow. That’s exciting. Not.
LS: Except the deeper they go, the stranger things get. First off, it’s not long before they hear some weird music in the woods—at times it sounds like an old-time swing band and other times like voices singing—and it gets louder as they keep walking. At one point it gets REALLY loud. There doesn’t seem to be any earthly source for the music. Also, all of their tracking equipment seems to go haywire—the arms of their compass spin out of control, their GPS unit tells them they are first in Alaska, and then in Florence, Italy— but they’re still in the woods of New Hampshire.
Also, we learn why Walter tagged along, since everyone begins to slowly show signs of madness as the trek proceeds. To the point where some characters erupt in violent rages, and the rest lose their way and can’t figure out how to go back to civilization.
What exactly is this path and where does it lead? Those are the questions the movie seeks to answer for the remainder of its running time, as everyone’s sanity appears to break further and further down. And things start to get a little scary. Or at least, they try to.
I actually thought the idea behind YELLOWBRICKROAD, of a strange path where people get hooked and are forced to follow it to the end, was a pretty interesting one.
MA: I agree. I loved the premise. But—.
LS: Yeah, the premise is at least original and I don’t remember seeing anything quite like it before. And for that reason I found myself really wanting to like this movie.
MA: Again, I agree.
LS: However, there are long stretches where characters are just walking through the woods and things don’t really get interesting until the end—where I was expecting a terrific payoff. But instead, all I got was disappointed.
LS: I guess you’re supposed to interpret the ending for yourself, and I was able to do that, but at the same time, I didn’t find it very satisfying. And I’m sure a lot of people will just find it confusing, and a complete letdown.
MA: I found it extremely confusing, from start to finish. To me, this film never really established its identity. Is it a creepy ghost movie? A documentary-style horror flick a la THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)? A study in psychology, where the characters simply lose it and turn on each other? It’s a little bit of all of these, particularly the latter, but it never really takes what it has and runs with it. As a result, it ends up being one long unexciting trek into the woods.
LS: It did remind me a lot of BLAIR WITCH at times, although it is not filmed in the “found footage” documentary style of that movie. If you remember, in BLAIR WITCH, the characters went looking for something supernatural in the woods and lost their way as well, and started acting weirder as it all went on. But, aside from those superficial similarities, YELLOWBRICKROAD had the potential to be something truly different. And it all hinges on what we find at the end of the road. And honestly, the answer just isn’t very compelling.
The acting is okay for the most part, but I wasn’t blown away by anyone’s performance. They suited the story well enough, but I wish there had been a more dynamic character or two to keep the story from dragging. Even though Teddy appears to be the main character early on, by the middle of the movie, nobody is really the lead character, and there’s no one person who is a strong presence. I even got a couple of characters mixed up a few times because of this.
The accent used by Laura Heisler for Liv was supposed to be a New Hampshire accent, but I found it pretty irritating. Did is sound authentic to you, Michael?
MA: No! It sounded like a botched fake Boston accent. It was extremely irritating.
LS: I thought so. I’ve never heard someone from New Hampshire talk like that. It was just weird.
MA: I’m with you about the acting, although I did like Alex Draper as Walter, the psychologist. I thought he was an interesting character, even though he didn’t do a whole lot. The rest of the characters all seemed like they would be interesting if we had got to know them. I didn’t think the screenplay by writers/directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton did a good job fleshing these characters out.
LS: The location of the woods is okay (hell, it worked for BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, too), but gets tiresome rather quickly, because it all looks the same (which makes sense, because it makes you believe it when characters get lost), at the same time, it’s not very interesting visually.
TREE WITH A FACE: Who are you calling tiresome? Trees are exciting!
MA: Really? I don’t think I’ve ever met an exciting tree.
TREE: You don’t get out very much then.
MA: Well, I’m out now. Do something exciting.
TREE: That’s too much pressure. I can’t be put on the spot like that. I’m too self-conscious.
LS (produces an ax): We might need some fire wood later. How’s that for excitement?
TREE: You’re just mean!
LS: Yes I am, and I’m also the guy holding the ax, so why don’t you stop bugging us and let us go on with our review?
TREE: The next time you need shade, don’t come crying to me!
LS: The next time I need shade I won’t be here. I’ll be in my air-conditioned apartment.
MA: Alright you two. Let’s get back to the movie.
The use of sound effects is a big plus in this movie. The otherworldly “music” everyone hears is the only soundtrack to the film, and it is kind of creepy, although, the more you hear it, the more you get used to it. It is used well, though, and does add a sense of atmosphere and foreboding to the movie.
MA: I started out liking this effect, but as it went on, I just found it annoying. I found this tinny music which sounded like something you’d hear played on an amusement park speaker irritating and aggravating, which I guess was supposed to be the point, because it starts to drive the characters crazy, but strangely, I didn’t find it creepy.
And that’s something this movie continually lacked, establishing a sense of creepiness. Nearly everything that happens to these folks in the woods, I found annoying rather than scary. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat. I was sitting there thinking, will someone turn off that flippin music? It’s giving me a headache.
They hear the music, they have no explanation for it, and so they just go on and try to ignore it. That makes sense, except as a person watching this story, I wanted to know what the music is, and so I wished someone in the movie would make an attempt to figure it out. But no, it just plays on and on, and our investigative team simply walks on, deeper and deeper into the woods. I sat there asking myself, where the hell are these people going?
LS: When we finally get to see some violence, I found it kind of laughable. One scene where a character attacks another character and pulls off her leg had me laughing out loud—it just looked so… fake.
MA: It was incredibly fake-looking! It was extremely disappointing. For a movie that has generated this much buzz, I was surprised that such a poorly executed scene like that was in the film. Amateurish.
LS: And when characters who go insane start talking about the need they have to hurt someone, it just struck me as kind of goofy, rather than scary. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that there is maybe one scary moment in the whole movie (involving a cave) but it still had me laughing, because I guess I’m just jaded.
MA: I think the fact that film just wasn’t scary had more to do with your laughing than your being jaded. It’s true. It was goofy after a while.
(LS and MA see some apples growing nearby)
LS: An apple tree! After all this walking, I sure am hungry. And I love apples.
(LS grabs and apple and pulls it free)
SECOND TREE WITH A FACE: How dare you! Do I go around picking things off you?
LS: Another talking tree! But this one reminds me a lot of one we saw back in THE WIZARD OF OZ.
SECOND TREE: That’s because I am from Oz, genius. But someone dug me up and transplanted me here, to this boring place.
MA: So you don’t like it here?
SECOND TREE: Are you kidding? None of the other trees will talk to me, and nothing happens here! Nothing but that grating “music,” that is giving me a migraine. Can’t you guys dig me up again and take me with you? You can bring me back to Oz! I’ll even curl up my roots to help you.
LS: What the hell are we going to dig with, our hands? Besides, I don’t know how to get to the Oz you’re talking about. But I can take you to a prison called OZ.
SECOND TREE: Ahhh, forget it.
LS (to MA): You know, if there had been some talking trees in YELLOWBRICKROAD, I would have liked it better. (bites into apple)
(SECOND TREE cries out in pain)
LS: Did that hurt you? Me eating this apple?
SECOND TREE: Yes, it did.
(LS takes another bite, and the TREE cries out)
MA: Stop it! The racket he’s making is worse than that stupid music.
LS (throws apple on the ground): Okay, okay. But I’m still hungry. Maybe I can catch a rabbit or a woodchuck or something.
MA: Can we just finish the review?
The ending just seemed to me like Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton (who co-directed the movie and co-wrote the script), couldn’t imagine something really cool to end things with, so they went with something enigmatic/ominous. And it just made me yawn. There were so many other, better ways this movie could have ended.
MA: I agree
LS: I give it an A for effort and originality, but a C- for execution. Or something like that. In total, I give YELLOWBRICKROAD, two knives. And I’m being generous here.
MA: You liked it more than I did. I was sitting there thinking, “This movie generated a lot of buzz? This movie?”
Again, I liked the premise, so I thought this movie had lots of potential, and I thought the preview trailer looked very creepy, so I had some high hopes for this one, but it let me down big time.
I think some character development would have helped. For example, our lead investigator, Teddy, says he’s obsessed with this legend. Why? We don’t know anything about him which would explain why he’s so interested in solving this mystery. Does he love mysteries? Did something similar once happen to him or someone he knew? Is he somehow associated with the town? But we’re not offered any kind of background information that might make Teddy and his investigation more interesting.
The film is incredibly ambiguous. Now some people like to make the argument that if a movie is confusing, it’ll turn people off and they won’t like it, just because they have to think. Now, I don’t mind an ambiguous movie, and I certainly have nothing against movies that make you think. But here, there doesn’t seem to be much to think about.
I only have one question about this story, and it’s the only question that was on my mind during the movie: what happened to all those people who disappeared in 1940? And related to that question is this one, what happened to the characters in this movie? Neither one of these is satisfactorily answered by the movie, so when all is said and done, I still have no idea what happened to these people.
LS: Actually, the movie does give you a hint where those people from 1940 ended up, but it only lasted a second, and I can’t explain it to you without spoiling the ending. So forget it.
MA: Yeah, but that’s what I’m talking about. A blink-and-you-missed it “hint” doesn’t satisfactorily answer the question.
Plus, nothing in this movie captured my imagination and made me want to watch it again and look for clues that I may have missed the first time. It was like trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle that didn’t provide enough numbers. Where’s the fun in that? You want to be able to solve the damn thing!
Beyond its unique premise, YELLOWBRICKROAD has nothing else to offer. It’s not creepy, it’s not scary, it’s not really gory; it’s simply annoying and irritating. Without understanding what was going on, I just couldn’t get into it. Had it at least been eerie, I would have possibly looked past the fact that it had a confusing story, but I wasn’t scared at all during this one.
For a movie that generated so much buzz, I was very disappointed with YELLOWBRICKROAD. I think Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton’s script was mostly to blame, rather than their direction, because had the story been more cleverly conceived, had there been some meat on those bones, they might have had something.
LS: Yeah, it was a completely missed opportunity. Which is frustrating as hell when you’re in the audience and you’re a writer, like we are. We could have come up with a so much more clever ending to this thing! But nobody throws money at us to make a movie.
MA: I give YELLOWBRICKROAD one and a half knives.
Now that we’re done, can someone shut off that damn music!
LS: I’ve done better than anyone in the movie, because I’ve just discovered where the music is coming from.
LS: Up there. (points above them to a hill in the middle of the forest. On the hill is a DJ spinning records. On either side of him are giant sunflowers that are obviously amplifiers. The DJ is so caught up in what he’s doing, his eyes are closed and he doesn’t notice LS and MA)
MA: Shall we?
LS: Let’s do it.
(LS produces a sling shot, MA hands him a big rock, and LS shoots the rock at the DJ. Knocking him out. LS and MA high five each other when the music stops. But, suddenly, a few minutes later, the music starts playing again.)
MA: Now, that’s creepy!
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives YELLOWBRICKROAD ~ one and a half knives!
LL Soares gives YELLOWBRICKROAD ~two knives.