Film Review: YellowBrickRoad (2010)
Directed by: Andy Mitton, Jesse Holland
Cast: Michael Laurino, Anessa Ramsey, Alex Draper, Cassidy Freeman, Clark Freeman, Tara Giordano, Sam Elmore, Laura Heisler, Lee Wilkof
Review by: Marc Patterson
The toughest part about conducting an interview with filmmakers whose film you haven’t seen yet? Well, it’s simply the part about not having seen their film yet. Back in February I had the opportunity to talk to Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton about their new psychological backwoods horror film YellowBrickRoad. (read that interview here) It’s now October, on the verge of the 2010 New Hampshire Film Festival, and I have finally had the opportunity to sit down and watch this film. I’m not going to lie (I rarely do), I had some high expectations going into the film. First, I’m a huge fan of backwoods horror. Secondly, I live in the woods of New Hampshire. Finally, these guys are local filmmakers from Western Massachusetts, which is NOT the same as being from Boston. From the trailers, stills, and synopsis the story looked immensely original and with high hopes I dove in.
The basis for YellowBrickRoad is extremely uncomplicated for a film that takes on some rather complex twists and shocking turns. Back in 1940, in the entire town of Friar, New Hampshire, which consisted of five hundred and seventy-two men, women and children walked up a mountain trail taking with them only what they could carry and they simply disappeared. A US Army led search team went to look for them and found roughly half the bodies, most had been butchered. The cause, or causes, remains unknown. Only one survivor was brought back, and subsequently went completely mad before he could relay anything of what happened. Cut to present day.
A team of historical researchers is determined to find the original trail and go back down the YellowBrickRoad to discover exactly what happened out there in the expansive wilderness. They take with them a full team of filmmakers, along with a psychologist and a guide. At first they encounter incredibly tight-lipped resistance from any of the local town-folk but eventually one girl opens up and helps them discover the trail head. The team heads out and begins to encounter the madness that drove the town insane.
One of the first things that leaps out about YellowBrickRoad is how incredibly slow paced it is, though intentionally so, allowing the tension to build up frame by frame. To this end it reminded me much of the recent film The House of the Devil, which is of course inspired heavily by the hand of Roman Polanski. The filmmakers talked to me about Polanski as an influence. Usually when I hear such statements I’m laughing on the inside because it’s typically an indicator of amateurish work where you end up seeing a cheap photo-copy. Not so here. Mitton and Holland capture the essence of Polanski’s stylings applying it to a backwoods setting with skillful prowess and exhibit a sense of Stephen King inspired horror.
I know it’s going to be a bit hyperbolic to say, but YellowBrickRoad is bar none the best original story I’ve had the pleasure of sitting and watching come to life this year. I’m really not kidding about that. I have rarely seen a genre film play out in such a manner where the storytelling alone could validate this to be a novel. It’s smart and compelling without being overly heady. Without getting too off into the bushes of comparison, just moments ago I mentioned Stephen King, and to that end there was much about this film felt like a Stephen King novel brought to life, though to qualify that statement further, I’m talking more like Krubrick’s The Shining rather than something like The Langoliers. YellowBrickRoad also disregards the staple conventions of backwoods horror films such as monsters, redneck cannibals, and so forth, and instead relies on mind-crushing psychological suspense to drive the audience crazy and believe me, it works.
During the second act of the film the characters are pushed through a gauntlet. Compasses fail to work, members of the expedition begin to lose their memory, odd sounds and inexplicable music from what sounds like 1940’s radio radiates through the trees, and madness slowly sets in. There’s very little gore on display but this is the type of film that when it finally decides to play the gore card it will sucker punch you with it. Mimimalism is far underrated in horror.
The cast is largely comprised of unknown actors, many of them coming from a TV background, and to this end is one of my more critical complaints. There were times, especially in the beginning of the film that YellowBrickRoad felt like a made for TV film. I’m ignorant to whether or not the filmmakers shot the opening of the film first, but there was a cohesiveness in the chemistry amongst the actors that emerged as we moved into the woods. Prior to this the acting felt stiff and a bit forced. Generally speaking though, there’s hardly a complaint to be made.
From a technical vantage point this is a largely solid effort, with both the direction and editing coming together nicely. Being shot on location in the northern woods of New Hampshire allows the audience to really settle into a believable environment and not have to work so hard to sell the audience on the isolation of the characters. Again, going back to my interview I talked to the filmmakers about the conditions of the shoot. Poor cell phone signal, nasty black flies, and the long distant hauls to the shooting locations all help fuel the neurosis that powers the film and sell it to the audience more effectively. I should have like to see a different approach to the cinematography, as I felt it a bit flat and even overexposed at times. Being a local, and avid outdoorsman I know firsthand how expansive and gorgeous these woods can look. But again, I’m starting to split hairs.
YellowBrickRoad is a fresh original update of the backwoods horror film. It’s one that begs to be seen in a large theater, projected with terrific surround sound. Both Mitton and Holland are self professed fans of horror, and though this film begs to break the bounds of the genre I would certainly hope to see them return to horror to craft yet another original terrifying film.