Read some reviews of YELLOWBRICKROAD and you will more than likely find it compared to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Not only is the comparison wrong to make, it’s also a bit dismissive of what YELLOWBRICKROAD actually is. If anything, the film is a kind of spiritual successor to Peter Weir’s PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. Weir’s film dealt with the sudden and unexplained disappearance of three young girls and a school teacher during an expedition to a geological outcropping. The central mystery of the film is never explained. The four women simply vanish. Much like Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA, the “why” is not important.
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK doesn’t work as a horror film in the traditional sense. It is much more interested in creating a mood, an atmosphere, and allowing all of the subsequent events to be colored by the horrible fate we imagine has befallen the lost girls and their teacher. In YELLOWBRICKROAD, a group of researchers, led by a husband/wife author team, get hopelessly lost in the woods while tracing the steps of the citizens of a town called Friar. In 1940, all 500+ citizens of the town simply got up and left, making their way through the woods via a trail known as “yellow brick road”. The researchers want to find out what happened. Whether they do or not is largely left open to interpretation. What is certain is that not everyone reaches the end of the trail alive.
The kind of film that will easily divide audiences. YELLOWBRICKROAD operates best as a tone poem, the kind Weir worked so masterfully in PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. There are shocks here. There are violent deaths. There are supernatural events like the constant stream of 1930s music that plays somewhere in the distance at all hours of the day. There are a few jump scares. There are a few false scares. But none of those things are as important as the mood of the film, the atmosphere, the tone of inescapable doom. As we follow the characters throughout their journey, we get to watch their slow descent into madness. Memory loss sets in and their moods swing wildly between despair and violence. The landscape turns against them. Their GPS begins to tell them that they are in Guam or Melbourne. The mapping coordinates no longer add up, their forward progress not matching their actual activity (at one point, they discover their data suggests they have walked 19 miles in only a few hours). As the events turn more serious and the group begins to crumble, the film itself begins to change. Colors become desaturated, the soundtrack begins to distort and our field of vision become skewed. It’s as if we are going insane alongside the characters.
As I said, YELLOWBRICKROAD is a polarizing film. I think the people who prefer their horror more explicit (and not just the violence, but the subtext, the threat, the explanation) will not make it far into this film. It is slow, sometimes agonizingly slow, although it is slow on purpose and not because it was edited poorly. It takes its time ramping up the delirium, refusing to cater to cheap thrills or forced plot developments. When the first member of the group snaps, it happens unexpectedly and the consequences are shocking. The shock wave that is sent through the group begins their downward spiral and the resulting disintegration is often fascinating. These are not your BLAIR WITCH style characters that bitch and scream constantly. They do not descend into histrionics. Intuitively, they understand the direness of their situation. They instead descend into despair. When one character tells his companion that he has thought about killing her, that she should tie him up and, if needs be, kill him first, there is a kind of emotional devastation to the scene.
I for one am glad that films like this are being made. I enjoy the smaller film, the more intimate film, the kind of film that refuses to play cheap games, that immerses you in a particular atmosphere and just lets the cinematography do all the work. Films like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and ANTICHRIST work because of their atmosphere. YELLOWBRICKROAD has it in spades. The film is gorgeous but cold, chilling but restrained. I have issues with the resolution of the story but I understand the point being made through it. I have no issues with the direction the film took or how it ended up where it did before the credits rolled. For 100+ minutes, I was immersed in the look of the thing. That’s more than I can say for most modern horror films.