Lots of horror movies take place in the wilderness, and it's not really hard for a screenwriter to get their characters out there. It could be a rave in the forest, a wrong turn in the desert, or a detour caused by a crazy hitchhiker in the mountains, but in most cases the "WHY" of the road trip is not at all important. It's often just an excuse to get a bunch of vulnerable people stuck in a dangerous spot. But the impressive new indie horror flick YellowBrickRoad (yes, all one word) is noteworthy in that the reason for the trip is the really interesting part -- and the subsequent death, danger, madness, and mayhem is more or less the icing on the cake.
The flick opens with a title card indicating that in 1940, the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire simply got up and wandered into the forest, never to be heard from again. About half of the missing 700 were found, long dead, but that's about it. So already we're starting off with a suitably creepy "Mary Celeste" sort of premise, and then we move in to the meat of the matter. A group of researchers and filmmakers are intent on not only locating the source of the mystery, but (of course) they're going to document their exploits. The film's title refers to the curious trail that leads to the mystery, and it's there that our (surprisingly interesting) collection of explorers head off into the wild.
If you're looking for slashers, monsters, or mutated bears, I'd recommend you look elsewhere because, to its credit, YellowBrickRoad is considerably more interested in things like urban legends, the often foolhardy nature of ambition, strained group dynamics, and a whole lot of gradually-tightening tension. Filmmakers Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland seem to draw inspiration from obvious choices The Blair Witch Project and The Wizard of Oz, but also include a few dabs from The Shining, The Wicker Man, and even a bit of Deliverance. (In other words, these guys borrow from the best.) The cast is made up of mostly newcomers, but the ensemble is really quite strong across the board. (Eagle-eyed horror fans may recognize Alex Draper from Joshua and Anessa Ramsey from The Signal.) Even the potentially cliched characters -- like the inevitable"wimpy" guy -- come off with a few personality facets you might appreciate.
YellowBrickRoad is at its best once we've met all the characters and they've hiked their way deep into the New England wilderness. The mystery of what happened to the population of Friar (70 years ago) is a palpable driving force, even when the characters aren't actively discussing it -- and then the music starts. From out of nowhere, miles from any sort of civilization, comes the sound of old-fashioned '40s ballads. And the songs just won't stop. The explorers somehow manage to get used to the mysterious music, and just when the viewer starts to wonder how they could "accept" such a bizarre mystery ... things start getting weird. A bit subtly at first -- characters start babbling, or they wander off by themselves; others lose track of time and become enraptured by that damn music.
And then all hell kinda breaks loose with an act of violence that's ice-cold creepy and truly unsettling.
To say much more would spoil the fun, and there's definitely some deep, dark fun to be found here. My strongest reservations about YellowBrickRoad lie with some of the Act III plot contortions, but while I consider those to be fair criticisms -- to catalog them here would definitely be a breach of the Film Critic Spoiler Code. All in all, those small stumbles don't damage the flick as a whole. It's a well-shot, multi-dimensional, and unexpectedly cerebral little horror story that proves there's always new life in a well-used premise ... provided you show up with a few new tricks of your own.