Even cowardly lions scare Judge Gordon Sullivan.
This road has no fairy tale ending.
Fear often works on two levels. On one level, it can be an intellectual fear, like the fear of being late or the fear of having a house foreclosed on. These kinds of fears have no (or little) connection with the body or with death. Other fears are rooted in the body, like the fear of disease or dismemberment. These fears have almost no intellectual component at all, nothing to think about; one either gets dismembered or one doesn't, with thought having no effect on the outcome. A horror film about someone's house being foreclosed on would likely not be popular, and, as satisfying as a film about dismemberment can be, with no reason or thought behind it, such a film would likely not have much appeal. No, the best horror films are those that can marry intellectual fears to fears rooted in the body. Thus, a film like The Exorcist takes our intellectual fears about faith and the possible existence of the Devil and makes them corporeal in the body of a little girl, making the audience afraid on several levels. The example of The Exorcist is especially apt, because directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton cite it as their favorite film in the commentary to YellowBrickRoad. The influence of those atmospheric Seventies horror films is undeniable in this case, but despite a decent cast and intriguing premise, the duo never quite manage to provide quite enough intellectual fuel to let this slow-burn horror burst into flames.
Some seventy years ago, in 1940, the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire, wandered off into the woods and disappeared. A few bodies were found, and the film opens with the audio testimony of the lone survivor. Back in the present day, Teddy Barnes (Michael Laurino) decides to take his wife Melissa (Anessa Ramsey, The Signal) into the woods with a forest ranger and some cartographers to see if they can piece together what happened to the original inhabitants of Friar.
Let's face it, YellowBrickRoad fits firmly into the track first hollowed out by The Blair Witch Project. Of course there's no "you are there" shaky-cam from the actor's perspective (though there is quite a bit of handheld photography in the film). However, the film does feature a group of curious people going into the woods to investigate a possibly-supernatural phenomenon that has left people dead. More importantly for the purposes of comparison, YellowBrickRoad features a group of people who keep experience weird stuff in the woods; this isn't a maim-and-slaughter backwoods gorefest, but aims to produce an overwhelming sense of dread.
Largely because it doesn't try to stick to the first-person camera of Blair Witch, YellowBrickRoad is actually a little more adept at creating atmosphere. The camera tracks the party through the woods effortlessly, seeming to glide at places. This gives the woods their own character, making them part of the drama unfolding between the search party. Similarly, the film uses audio, especially music, to chilling effect. Like the woods, sound becomes another character, alternately menacing and fascinating to the searchers.
However, unlike Blair Witch, YellowBrickRoad can't quite pull off its ending. Blair Witch ends without any real answers on a bit of creepy footage that is, frankly, the best thing about the film. It feels like a natural extension of the story and raises the stakes significantly. YellowBrickRoad, however, builds up a creepy atmosphere but doesn't know what to do with it. It too ends without any real answers, but rather than providing a creepy scene to cap things, we get a slightly hackneyed little bit of sleight-of-hand. I don't want to give the ending away, but it is far from satisfying.
Despite its faults, YellowBrickRoad gets a solid DVD release. The transfer is generally bright and clear, with strong detail and few compression problems even during the darker scenes. I was a little less impressed with the audio track. It does a great job with some of the more atmospheric moments in the film, but the mix of the dialogue had me reaching for my remote pretty often. The sole extra is a fairly engaging audio commentary featuring the film's directors. They share their inspirations, production stories, and some technical details. It's a bit quiet in parts and sometimes includes a bit of "this is what's on the screen," but fans of the film will enjoy its insights.
YellowBrickRoad is an atmospheric little horror film that fans of the genre will probably find worth a rental even the ending disappoints. The DVD presentation is solid, and those looking to purchase can do so with little worry.
It's not all it could be, but YellowBrickRoad is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
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