An entire community ups and leaves their small New Hampshire town, following a trail off into the woods, with all but one either dying a violent death or vanishing altogether. Decades later, a group of individuals decide to follow their route in hopes of uncovering the mystery behind the disappearance of the people of Friar. This is the setup for the psychological horror flick, Yellowbrickroad, a film that starts out promisingly but eventually reminded me of a lot of other films that I wished I was watching instead.
Teddy (Michael Laurino) and Melissa (The Signal’s Anessa Ramsay) are a young couple working on a book about the Friar, New Hampshire incident. The couple put together an expedition, enlisting the aid of a group of experts in their fields, including psychologist, Walter (Alex Draper); cartographers Erin and Daryl Luger (played by real-life siblings, Clark and Cassidy Freeman); shy intern Jill (Tara Giordano); and forestry services officer, Cy (Sam Elmore). The group hopes to navigate the mythical trail that the denizens of the town were said to have traversed on their way to their respective fates, but, whilst following the coordinates they’d culled from research and recently declassified documents, they find themselves at a dead end, smack dab in the middle of a small cinema in “downtown” Friar. It is here that they quickly learn that the locals don’t like to talk about the town’s sordid past. At least, most of them don’t.
While trying to ply a local for information, Teddy spies Liv (Laura Heisler), a townie who offers to help them find the fabled “Yellowbrickroad” (named after the ill-fated townsfolk’ obsession with The Wizard of Oz) so long as he takes her with him. She’s spent her entire life in this little town and has had her fill. Teddy is reticent, but soon gives in, and the group begins their trek into the wilderness.
At first, the expedition goes a lot like one would expect. There are a lot of laughs, some heartfelt exchanges, and the occasional discovery, including an old hat that Daryl decides to wear for the rest of their journey. It’s not long before excitement gives way to apprehension when a mysterious music emanates from the woods around them. Soon, the team loses their way, and, ultimately, their minds as paranoia and self-preservation get the best of them and it becomes clear that they are in danger of meeting the same fate as the lost citizens of Friar.
The first two acts of Yellowbrickroad are a pitch-perfect example of psychological horror done right. The setup is perfect, with an intriguing mystery, a spooky location, and a palpable sense of unease. We get an interesting, mostly-likeable cast of characters whom writer/director team Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton take great care in developing naturally and over time rather than taking the broad strokes approach of one-dimensional genre archetypes. The script is smart; not just in terms of dialogue, but in how the characters are depicted going about their work on this expedition. We really believe that Walter’s a shrink, Erin and Daryl know their way around a map, and Cy is an authority on all things forest-related. It would have been so easy for Holland and Mitton to throw a bunch of giggling twenty-somethings into the woods and just gloss over the reasons they’re there, but, instead, we see why Teddy and Melissa chose these people, and, through Walter’s psychological evaluations, Erin and Daryl’s route-plotting, and Cy’s oftentimes humorous attempts to educate his fellow team members about the dangers of a particular berry, we get a real sense that this group knows what it’s doing, which makes it that much more disturbing when things go awry. The problem is, once the horror element kicks in, rather than build up in intensity, the film slows to a crawl, and we’re forced to endure what seems like an eternity of in-fighting and hand-wringing before culminating in a “punch your fist through the television screen” ending that was all the more infuriating given how promisingly it all started.
The performances are strong across the board, with exceptional turns by Ramsay, Elmore, and Draper, but, as a New Englander, I found Heisler’s take on a New Hampshire accent a little too “Mayor Quimby” for my liking. In terms of direction, Holland and Mitton do a fine job creating tension from the start, and, once in the woods, they really hit their stride, highlighting the nascent of the seemingly endless forest. Sadly, it’s all build-up and no payoff, and, in the end, we’re left wanting something – anything – to make this long journey feel worthwhile. While I realize that one of the hallmarks of psychological horror are the questions it raises after the film ends, there has to be at least a modicum of profundity to the outcome to make asking these questions worthwhile, especially with an ending as abrupt as the one presented here. Otherwise you just look like you’ve either run out of film or ideas.