Kernel Rating (out of 5): 0
Length: 98 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Age Appropriate for: Definitely 17+. The violence is gory and prevalent, and though the film isn’t emotionally engaging, it certainly becomes blood-soaked in its second half.
“YellowBrickRoad” is the second film in a summer series exclusive to Baltimore’s AMC White Marsh theater until the end of August. The series, a collaboration between AMC, entertainment management company The Collective and horror website BloodyDisgusting.com, will bring a different horror movie from international and festival film circuits to White Marsh each month. Chesapeake Family will review the entire series; “YellowBrickRoad” runs until the end of June, while the next film, “Cold Fish,” hits theaters July 8.
Don’t wander down ‘YellowBrickRoad’ unless you want a poor horror movie that makes no sense at all. And not in a good way that will keep you talking, like ‘Inception’ — more like the ‘Can I get a refund?’ way.
By Roxana Hadadi
Seriously, what’s been up with my luck lately? “Rubber” was awful. “Priest” was awful. And now there’s “YellowBrickRoad,” the second in the summer horror series at Baltimore’s AMC White Marsh theater, and it’s also pretty awful. Whoever in the universe I made angry, I’m sorry! Please stop making me suffer.
The first film in the series, “Rammbock: Berlin Undead,” was a German zombie flick that moved along at a fast pace and was actually surprisingly good, a nice foreign addition to Hollywood’s undead canon. But alas, “YellowBrickRoad” is the exact opposite of “Rammbock”: It’s slow and meandering, it doesn’t develop real characters, it creates zero tension, there’s no sense of truly exhausting danger. There’s blood, sure, in the form of a torn-off leg, a sliced-open jaw, lots of slit throats — but gore for gore’s sake is a bore. Even slaughter-fests like director Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” which followed two guys randomly torturing and killing a family of strangers, had some plot, some context, some point. What’s the deal, “YellowBrickRoad”? Too cool to join the good-movie party?
I suppose “YellowBrickRoad” aspires to be a brainy, bracing thriller, but the film’s bad guy is a phonograph playing old songs from the 1940s and our “heroes” are self-absorbed tools eager to make a name for themselves by seizing on the memories of a tortured small town. “The Blair Witch Project” did this years ago, and that movie still gives me nightmares. “YellowBrickRoad” just made me laugh.
The movie starts somewhat promisingly, along the lines of the “found footage” horror subgenre, like 2007’s “Paranormal Activity” and its sequel, 2010’s “Paranormal Activity 2.” One morning in 1940, the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire, walked north “up an unmarked trail into the wilderness,” a text introduction tell us. Some people were “found frozen” and “others slaughtered,” but most were never found; a lone survivor who was interviewed by area cops could only mutter, “I walked … I walked.” The case was closed, “classified until further review,” and the abandoned town became local lore.
For author Teddy Barnes (Michael Laurino), Friar represents an opportunity: Once the file becomes unclassified, he receives information about it from a local clerk (Lee Wilkof) and immediately decides to write a book about the phenomenon, recruiting his wife Melissa (Anessa Ramsey) and old friend Walter (Alex Draper), a behavioral psychologist, along for the trip. They’ve all survived tough terrain and reckless adventures before, so traipsing along a trail can’t be that bad, right?
Sigh. We all know where this is going.
So Teddy, Melissa and Walter round out their crew with intern Jill (Tara Giordano), Forestry Service ranger Cy (Sam Elmore), brother and sister topographers Daryl (Clark Freeman) and Erin (Cassidy Freeman) and Friar resident Liv (Laura Heisler), who claims to know about the trail, which residents call YellowBrickRoad, the only words carved into a rock placed at its beginning. The group tries to maintain normalcy: Walter plans to interview members of the group every day to check on their mental health while Melissa serves as group manager, doling out candy and trying to keep things in order as Teddy inevitably drifts away, consumed by the mystique of the trail.
And eventually everyone begins going the way of Teddy, a mental shift that occurs when one day they start hearing music in the distance, old-timey tunes that sound like tracks from the ‘40s. The music drifts in and out, sometime pleasantly soft and sometimes a thunderstorm of static, and then Daryl finds a vintage hat from that time period, too. He insists on wearing it. Erin isn’t down with that. Things get crazy when the hat makes Daryl do stuff he can’t control. Everyone turns on each other, leading to betrayal, abandonment, murder — but “YellowBrickRoad” moves at such a slow pace that it’s impossible to stay engaged.
Horror films are scariest when they tap into our innermost, intrinsic fears with an understanding of why we become afraid. There are two ways to do this best: Take a normal situation that could happen to anyone and make it horrifying (“Jaws” did this with beaches, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with road trips, “Psycho” with showers), or probe our interest in the supernatural with inexplicable, mysterious means that appeal to our common humanity. Guillermo del Toro gets this; films like “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” analyze our relationships with innocence and dark places and how they shape us from children to adults. Classics like “The Exorcist,” “The Shining,” “The Ring,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Suspiria” — those films understood how much information to give us to amplify our fear. “YellowBrickRoad” does not.
Why the trail? Dunno. Why the music? Dunno. Why the vitriolic rage? Dunno. There are some creepy scenes — mostly black and white snapshots of the action onscreen, coupled with voiceover narration including lines from “The Wizard of Oz” — but they’re too sparse to give the film a true ick factor. Near the movie’s end, its characters spew some musings about loneliness and companionship and the appeal of the barbaric outdoors, but the conclusion is infuriatingly unfulfilling. Is it some kind of snarky point about our society’s reliance on pop culture to collectively experience the same feelings and emotions? Maybe. I dunno. I don’t think the film’s co-directors and co-writers Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton do, either.
“YellowBrickRoad” is rated R, and the film’s violence is gory and graphic; even with a parent or guardian older than 17, I don’t think any younger teens should be allowed to see this one. Specifically, a character is beaten to death, their limbs torn off and their jaw split open; that same character appears later as a corpse tied up like a scarecrow. Someone’s neck is broken; others’ throats are slit; and one commits suicide by slitting their wrists. There is also cursing, some drinking and drug use and a few sex scenes, which don’t include nudity but are clear in their content.
Too bad nothing else about “YellowBrickRoad” is as boringly straightforward as those suggested romantic romps in the woods. But tediously dreary? Yes. Forthright and succinct? I wish.