1940: the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire walks out of town on a trail through the wilderness. Some are discovered later, brutally murdered, but most of them are never found. So begins YellowBrickRoad, a straight to DVD movie that manages to heed the lesson taught to us years ago by the directors of The Blair Witch Project. If you have no money for your horror film then the woods is a scary scary place, especially at night.
After an effective prologue where we are shown some disturbing still photographs of the aftermath of the disappearance, we find ourselves in 2008 and Teddy Barnes (Michael Laurino) is obsessed with the Friar case. For years he has been trying to get the police files from the investigation but has been mired in bureaucratic red tape. One day the red tape is cut and Teddy gets the file, his obsession with the case grows and he sees opportunity to craft a book about the incident. With his wife Melissa (Anessa Ramsey) and colleague Walter (Alex Draper) they decide to mount an expedition out to Friar with a crew to see if they can gather some information from the locals and maybe walk the trail itself. The team are met with hostility by the locals, prior to setting out Teddy is plagued by threatening phone calls and when they arrive nobody is willing to speak to them. They are informed that the trail the residents walked all those years ago no longer exists. Feeling dejected and ready to pack it in they meet a quirky young woman Liv (Laura Heisler) who says she knows where the trail begins and can lead the team. The expedition heads out into the wilderness and after a day of heading north, strange feelings of despair and depression begin to emerge. Worst still everyone can hear ghostly old music emanating from an unknown source in the forest. Slowly the team start to experience homicidal urges and nobody is safe.
YellowBrickRoad is very good at conveying a sense of dread and impending doom. As the team descend deeper into the wilderness things feel increasingly hopeless. The allusions to The Wizard of Oz are enjoyable, it was the last film playing in the cinema in Friar before the disappearance and someone scratches ‘YellowBrickRoad’ into the dirt at the beginning of the trail. There are also a few instances when characters echo dialogue from the classic film. Unusually for a film that has debuted on DVD, the acting is brilliant. All the actors really sell their characters and are completely believable as they break down and either kill someone else or kill themselves. Best of all is Laura Heisler as the quirky young woman who lives in Friar, her transformation from young lonely townie to berry munching loon is fantastic. All of the usual horror film clichés make up the team that head into the woods - the obsessed investigator, the horny young couple, the psychology professor, the rugged outdoorsman etc. What is interesting is that once they are out in the woods, they don’t meet their doom in the order or manner you would expect. All of them become suspicious of each other and prone to manic outbursts in a manner that feels similar to John Carpenter's The Thing.
If you are going to imitate two classic horrors you could do worse thanThe Blair Witch Project andThe Thing, but YellowBrickRoad has a problem that holds it back from greatness and it’s a huge one. After the set up and the cliché book is thrown out the window, the script has nowhere to go. The film meanders big time come the halfway mark and becomes repetitive. The directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton set the scene and the central conflicts and dilemma perfectly, but are then content to let the cast wander aimlessly in the woods without purpose and with the occasional brutal murder. You would think that there would be a way out or some form of catharsis for the characters to strive for. The characters in The Thing were going to take the monster with them if they couldn’t escape after all. There isn’t anything like that here, as you realise that the characters are not even going to try and escape all the tension is gradually sucked out of the film and you are basically watching a group of crazy people stumbling around with no purpose. The film comes back to life at the end with a suitably bizarre Lynch-esque finale, but it's too little too late which is a real shame because so much of what came before was so good.
YellowBrickRoad isn’t a bad rental prospect it's just a very frustrating one, but there is some enjoyment to be had here nonetheless.
YellowBrickRoad is out now on DVD