One cold morning in 1940, the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire, left their town on foot and walked a mountain path into the wilderness, leaving behind everything they owned. A search party later found hundreds of corpses, some dead from exposure, others horribly mutilated. A single survivor was retrieved, hopelessly insane. The other residents of the town were never seen again. The incident was covered up, and over time became an urban legend.

Seventy years later, the coordinates of the trailhead–known locally as YELLOWBRICKROAD–were declassified. College professors Teddy and Melissa Barnes led the first official expedition into the forest beyond Friar.

The expedition did not end well.

First, a question: how many of you read the description of the premise above and thought, “Gee, that sounds an awful lot like a certain found-footage movie released in 1999–what was its name again?” I know I did, and I reckon I’m not alone in that. And there’s more similarities beyond the basic concept: despite jettisoning the found-footage format (and featuring more explicit violence and effects), YellowBrickRoad works with a lot of the same themes and methods of the earlier film. This doesn’t mean that the film comes off as a blatant rip-off, but it does have to work harder not to constantly remind the audience of something else.

So I’ll start by giving screenwriters/directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton some credit: enough elements of the production hit my genre sweet spots that I was nearly willing to rate YellowBrickRoad a three instead of a two. The cinematography is excellent, and the location work is nothing short of breathtaking. The cast is excellent, particularly Michael Laurino and The Signal’s Anessa Ramsey as Teddy and Melissa, Alex Draper as fellow prof Walter Myrick (a deliberate reference to Blair Witch?), Clark Freeman as douchey cartographer Daryl Luger (a character I should, by all rights, have hated) and the adorable Laura Heisler as curious townie Liv McCann. Plus, the members of the expedition gradually go insane the further they go into the wilderness, and I’m always a sucker for a good spiral-into-madness flick.

Most importantly, I loved the film’s haunting mood and atmosphere. One of my favorite elements of the film is the old-timey music the expedition starts hearing off in the distance, and which gets louder and louder the further in they go. (And which is apparently being played on a phonograph, judging from the occasional needle scratches we hear.) In order to be heard so loudly so far off, the volume level at the source would have to be roughly five or six times that of your average My Bloody Valentine concert–which leads to my favorite scene, in which the party soldiers on despite being disoriented by the music (and other sounds) being played tortuously loud. I haven’t seen a film use sound so well in a long time.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that there are so many damaging flaws. The backstory isn’t developed or presented to the audience particularly coherently–I didn’t realize that the 1940 disappearance was actually classified and covered up at an official level until I read the IMDB synopsis (which was written by Holland and Mitton) later. That could tie in to the fact that I was confused as to why, despite nobody apparently knowing much about what happened in 1940, Walter had the foresight to devise a battery of psychological and perception tests before they even hit the trail (as if he knew that there was a good chance that some sort of external force was going to try to drive the entire party insane). I never got a real sense of what compelled the party to keep moving forward despite all the insane shit that happened–I don’t know whether that’s a problem with the writing, acting or directing, so that puts a little asterisk by my earlier praise of the cast. And then there’s the sparely-used digital effects, which are worse than W Is For WTF?’s despite YellowBrickRoad’s reported budget being one hundred times larger than that of W’s.

But my biggest problem with the film is that it simply doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from other “people go into the woods searching out some urban legend, bite off more than they can chew, get lost and go mad/die/both” movies. There is almost no suspense in this movie; most major events are telegraphed to the audience waaaay in advance, featuring plot devices such as Chekhov’s Bad Berry and Chekhov’s Old-Timey Hat. The cliff sequence is composed such that you know exactly what’s going to happen the minute you see the first shot. (That being said, the scene genuinely saddened me–a testament to what the film gets right in the face of everything it does wrong.) Even the film’s ambiguity about what’s going on in the woods feels like an obligation–because that’s what movies like this are supposed to do–than a natural outgrowth of the story.

And the ending just plain sucks.

It’s a bit saddening, really, because this is a film I wanted–really, really wanted–to like more than I did. And it’s certainly not a film I’d shy away from recommending, albeit with a few caveats. But there’s no denying that there’s simply a lot of potential here that’s not being lived up to. Sigh.

My rating: 4 of 10.

100 minutes. Directed by Andy Mitton & Jesse Holland. Starring Michael Laurino, Anessa Ramsey, Alex Draper, Cassidy Freeman, Clark Freeman, Tara Giordano, Sam Elmore, Laura Heisler.

YELLOWBRICKROAD poster

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