Thursday, October 18, 2012

30 Days of Nightmares #22: YELLOWBRICKROAD (2010)

The Story: A group of investigators follow a local legend into the New Hampshire wilderness, to chart a path that somehow led an entire town to madness and murder.

Expectations: Honestly, I didn't know what to expect.  The synopsis is vague.  The poster art is vague.  But THE WIZARD OF OZ reference was intriguing.  I've always felt that there's a dark side to the Oz stories... not just the wicked witch and the flying monkeys, but the nature of a world without rules.  I feel the same way about ALICE IN WONDERLAND.  As a kid, I was struck by the scene in which Alice sits down and weeps after a dog literally erases her road back home.  There's a profound hopelessness about the way she surrenders to being lost in a dream, the same way Dorothy surrenders (prematurely) to being permanently stranded in Oz.  These scenes remind us that the surreal life is fun for a while, but that madness may be just over the next hill.  It also reminds us that there are some bad dreams we can't wake up from.  That makes these familiar childhood fairy tales very good fodder for nightmares.

Reaction: Aside from an effectively creepy scarecrow reference, there's not a lot of Oz in this movie.  The storytellers seem to have latched onto this connection as an afterthought, realizing (correctly) that they needed some kind of familiar metaphor to support (or at least market) a very unconventional narrative.  The Oz reference, however, creates some problems.  It focuses the viewer on the question of where the investigators are going to end up, and prompts us to look for similarities to a story we already know.  I believe that YELLOWBRICKROAD works best for the viewer who abandons this superficial comparison and lets their imagination wander... because essentially the "yellow brick road" is an extended metaphor about the great unknown.  "You always know the trail's there," one character observes, "Everyone dies, but no one says it."  That's what most horror movies are ultimately about, I suppose, but this one conveys our dreadful fascination with death.

Like the characters, we are intrigued by urban legends and the search for answers to age-old mysteries.  Like them, we are even more intrigued by apparent signs of the supernatural -- in this case, it's old-timey music drifting toward the investigators from the "end of the road."  Beyond this point of interest, viewers will proceed based on their own individual willingness to imagine what's ahead.  What's shown onscreen can never be as frightening as what's stimulated in the subjective mind of the listener/viewer by a storyteller who can conjure the emotional essence of horror. 

Some viewers will, of course, feel that not visualizing the threat is a lazy cop out.  More forgiving viewers will chalk it up to the limitations of low budget filmmaking.  A handful of viewers will be terrified by their own speculations.   For me, the film conjured thoughts of what's known as the "pan effect" -- that panicked feeling you get when you're alone in the middle of nature, and yet you feel like you're not really alone at all  -- as well as ancient Greek cautionary tales about what happens to mortals who asked to see the face of god.  (Hint for those with a limited knowledge of the classics: It doesn't turn out well.)  Is YELLOWBRICKROAD a pagan horror movie?  That's one way to look at it, and an intriguing one, but I wouldn't want to limit anyone's initial engagement with the film by imposing a decisive theory.

Obviously this movie isn't for everyone.  It's a courageously abstract, cerebral, existential horror movie.  For all those reasons, it can be frustrating -- even more frustrating than the middle seasons of the TV series LOST -- but it is also more original and more thought-provoking than most horror films, and for that I have to give it high marks.  When I look to indie horror, I'm often hoping to find something I haven't seen before.  For all of its faults (and I should add a note that any filmmaker who wants to rely so heavily on diegetic sound needs a much better sound mix), this one delivered something new.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The turning point in the film is a scene where one of the characters abruptly breaks down, like Dorothy pining for home in the Emerald City or Alice weeping in wonderland.  Because it's a horror movie, the breakdown is much bloodier...


  1. Hello Joe. This one always intrigued me. Interesting. A few others you've covered here have got my attention as well.

    I'm putting in my gentle and polite request for you to cover PREY and ROGUE. I would love to see your thoughts on those because I've been too chicken to take time to watch them. : )

  2. Thanks, Gordon. I'm starting to think that maybe my 30 days of nightmares is going to run a bit longer than 30 days... though I might have to stay up later and watch them alone, because my wife is definitely over the horror movie marathon.

  3. Ha. I'm impressed you had her attention for some span of time at all. That's love. My wife ennjoys the hooror films but would only hang in for a short period as well.

    We enjoyed Splinter, Slither and The Descent in recent times.

  4. She's been a good sport -- she's watched almost half of these films with me. To be fair, I've steered her away from some of them in advance. I can usually gauge what she'll sit through and what she won't.

    I thought SPLINTER was ingenious. I really liked SLITHER, but I think I had unrealistically high expectations based on some of the reviews I'd read. THE DESCENT, for my money, is still the best horror movie of the 2000s... and I will passionately argue with anyone who says that it wasn't a great decade for horror.

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. Hi Joe.

    Completely agree. I have to admit I quite liked Splinter alot! In fact, I've yet to make a purchase but may do so.

    I am firmly in your camp on The Descent. So good, I bought it recently. I don't normally purchase scare movies but that one is one of the best I've ever seen.