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Friday, October 30, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 25: Yellowbrickroad (2010)

Written and directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton

Cassidy Freeman:  Erin Luger
Clark Freeman:  Daryl Luger
Anessa Ramsey:  Melissa Barnes
Michael Laurino:  Teddy Barnes
Sam Elmore:  Cy Bambridge
Tara Giordano:  Jill Bateman
Laura Heisler:  Liv McCann
Alex Draper:  Walter Myrick

Some times you just have to take the plunge for HubrisWeen. There aren't many movies that start with Y, and not all of them are horror, fantasy or science fiction (the same problem exists for J, Q and X). So when assembling the list for this year's reviews I poked through web sites that had alphabetical lists of horror movies and picked this one because it's recent--which I've been trying to cover more for this year's marathon--and because I'd heard nothing at all about it from any source. Color me intrigued. I don't really know what I'm going to get from this, and with a Larry Buchanan movie coming up for the finale (and I know exactly what I'm going to be getting from that one) it's time to hope for something interesting and out of left field. In this case it's a movie that's almost great, which in some ways is the most frustrating kind of thing to watch. A bunch of filmmakers I hadn't ever heard of came up with a neat premise and some great unsettling scares on a visibly low budget but it doesn't quite jell in the end. "Interesting misfire" is not the harshest verdict I've ever given a movie and this one does qualify on both counts.

The movie appears to be riffing on the Dyatlov Pass Incident one way or another, with an opening title card revealing that the entire population of a small town in New Hampshire left their homes and places of business to walk north on an unmarked trail into the woods surrounding the town of Friar. Some of the people were found frozen, and others were found "mysteriously slaughtered", which sounds like the caption writer was trying way too hard to sound scary. Anyway, most of the people who were living in Friar were never seen again and their bodies were never located.

The title captions (along with a third one saying that there was a lone survivor who was tape-recorded when found by investigators) play out on a black screen while film-projector noises rattle on the soundtrack. Which means maybe we're going to be watching a found-footage movie--although at least the opening captions don't necessarily mean that that's what we're getting. Or it could mean that the filmmakers didn't quite know what they were doing (which is a depressing realization to have before the opening credits).

The recording plays out over still photos of the empty houses of Friar and other still photos of the investigators looking around at the empty houses and empty woods. There's a preface to the recording where an investigator says the person they found is the only one of the 258 people who lived in Friar that they have located. Everyone else has vanished, presumably into the woods. The unidentified survivor says he left everyone else on the path and asks if the people around him can hear whatever it is that he does (for the record, nobody else perceives whatever noises this guy is talking about). A quick montage of morgue paperwork and photos of dead bodies lying on a forest trail follow, and then the footage shifts to color.

And it looks like we are not in a found footage movie. Teddy Barnes requests a folder full of information about the Friar disappearances and actually gets them from the man in the archives, which takes Teddy a bit by surprise. Judging from his dialogue he's been researching the Friar event for some time, and is very used to being told that he can't access whatever it is he wants to take a look at. At any rate, the records clerk apologizes for the inconvenience and wishes Teddy the best of luck with his research.

Teddy returns to a gathering of friends with the case file, and the three other people there decide that they want to work on a book about the Friar event now (making sure to leave coffee cups on the irreplaceable photos and documents while going through them, because they are morons). One of the four goes through their accumulated voice mails and it turns out lots of people around Friar don't want to talk to anyone about some book project. Some are more polite than others, in that not every single one wraps up their message with "fuck you", but it doesn't look like there's going to be much research going on with the cooperation of anyone up there.

At a diner near Friar, the four people wrap up breakfast and introduce themselves in a circle before going out on their certainly-not-doomed expedition. Melissa Barnes is a co-author of the eventual book with Teddy (who is the official photographer of the expedition) and says she goes first with whatever gets discovered in the field. Cy Bambridge is the man from the Forestry Service, there because they need a guide but also looking forward to working on the Friar mystery. Daryl and Amy Luger are the cartography experts. Turns out that having a weird unsolved mystery with a three-figure body count in the area means that nobody wants to update the maps in the Friar region, which makes perfect sense to me. Jill Bateman is an intern working for college credit (I guess) with Teddy and Melissa. She's also got the first-aid kit, which means everyone should try to keep her from being eaten first. Lastly, Walter Myrick is a behavioral psychologist who want to try and make sure everyone's staying sane while they're out researching--he'd have the best chance out of any of them spotting anything odd affecting anyone in the group.

Teddy says he's been fascinated by the story of the Friar disappearances for years, and hopes that they can find out what's happened to all the missing people and what compelled them to go out on a doomed voyage; he says it's a chance to record history. And then the pancakes arrive so everyone turns their attention to that. The next thing we see is Walter Myrick taping a quick interview with Cy the forester, asking a few questions to see if his brain is working normally. Cy doesn't appear to be the sharpest arrow in God's quiver but goes along gamely. Then there's a gearing-up montage and the group parks like total douchebags in front of the local movie theater; according to Jill the intern and her portable GPS the first steps of the Friar trailhead are inside that theater. According to the slacker ticket-taker the group looks stupid and they need to pay eight bucks apiece if they want to go any farther into the building. Teddy springs for a ticket and goes to see something that (according to the soundtrack he hears) is a horror movie. There's a townie working as a projectionist in the theater who tells Teddy that she isn't one of the "angry ones" in town, but doesn't give him any more information.

The projectionist shows Teddy a few reels of film left behind in the theater from 1940 when everything went insane and tries to get a place on the expedition so she can move out of town--she's got no money, no family and no prospects for anything improving if she stays. Teddy, who must be some kind of Professor of Smartology, tells her that she can't go on the expedition because there's no trail (based on a single GPS reading that they looked at for about five or ten seconds). But she tells him there's a marker (reading "Yellowbrickroad", of course) at the start of the real trail, and if she can join the expedition she will show them where it is. It's an open secret in the town, but good luck finding it without a guide.

Well, the stone is there and the path is there when the group arrives. Off they go hiking after Teddy takes a picture of the entire expedition minus himself. Cy is driving some kind of go kart forestry vehicle on the trail and everyone else is stuck walking. There's also a pair of mental acuity tests from Dr. Myrick, shot so that the viewer sees a crystal-clear picture of the test subject in the display screen of a flip-camera while the person is a vague blur off in the background and to the left of the frame. I'm not sure what anyone thinks they're going to find on the trip, but so far it's just dirt and trees. They stop for the night in a convenient clearing and I'm betting everyone tries not to think about the Blair Witch while settling down for the night. Daryl leaps at everyone, yelling and wearing a hat he says he found in the woods when he wandered away from the camp to take a piss. The hat doesn't look like it's been out in the elements for seven decades and Daryl decides to keep wearing it as a token of something or other.

The second day on the trail, nothing supernatural seems to be taking place. The townie (who, if she had a name, I haven't heard it yet) gives some historical background on the Friar disappearances--her grandfather was a logger who traveled to the area back in 1940 and gave her some of the straight dope on the events before his death (unsurprisingly, he didn't think the official report was complete). The people who went walking out to their deaths supposedly had formal suits and hats with them--although Myrick points out that we're only hearing her say that after a hat in suspiciously great condition got picked up on the trail. Teddy doesn't think that they're being conned yet but Dr. Myrick couldn't agree with him less without special equipment.

Off the trail, Daryl and Erin start doing some kind of hideously complicated trigonometry to find where they are, and Jill the intern's got a GPS reading that states they're on located in Guam (Teddy wonders if she broke the thing, but she says she didn't). Everyone cheers in their version of Italian when the same device shows them as north of Florence that afternoon (but nobody thinks it's supernatural interference--just proof that they bought the wrong piece of crap to help determine their location). Jill starts wondering why nobody else is disconcerted by the number of different impossible results she's getting every time she checks the device (usually at Cy's bellowed insistence; she probably likes the way he calls her "Jill the intern" like that is her full name even less).

The third night, nothing continues to happen and everyone presses on down the trail (and I was rather impressed by the way the shooting locations looked genuinely overgrown--it can't be easy to scout out where you're going to go without leaving evidence that you've set up cameras and lights there). Teddy thinks he hears something and tells Cy to turn off the NatureKart he's driving. At first it seems that Teddy just heard some geese doing geese things, but then there's a faint sound on the wind that almost could be voices raised in song, but it's so faint that the words, if any, aren't intelligible. I might also be hearing some kind of woodwind instrument but that's far from certain. Whatever it is, everyone in the group heard it and spirits are high, considering that they're experiencing something unexplained and possibly unexplainable in a place where 250 people died or vanished under potentially similar circumstances.

Teddy rattles off a list of things they might be hearing (an intentional prank, a trick of acoustics, a shared hallucination) into his Dictaphone as the music starts to get louder. Dr. Myrick thinks there's at least the glimmer of a chance that it's actually something connected to the missing people from Friar. At that night's campfire Teddy holds a meeting and says they need to raise the possibility of all saying "NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE" in unison and turning back. The music keeps playing through his discussion, which sounds even more impossible at night. Nobody in the group wants to go back (and Daryl, who I kind of hope gets slapped in the face a lot, sasses Jill the intern for thinking the music might be some kind of divine message). Teddy says there's at least a possibility that the people in Friar who presumably heard this music might have thought it was a message from some god, if not necessarily JHVH. Dr. Myrick says he's scared, doesn't know what's going on, and they should leave. Erin wonders if there really is a wish-granting Wizard at the end of the road they're on, and if so--what would people be wishing for? Teddy says all he really wants is proof that there's something there and nobody else is shown answering the question.

The following morning the compasses join the GPS on the Our Shit Isn't Working Any More list. Daryl says he knows which was is north and Erin doubts that he's actually got an inherent knowledge of direction that he's tapping into. I'm not sure exactly why they need to know this, because everyone's on the path. Sure, it's nice to know where you are when you're a week out from anywhere with a phone or a doctor's office, but they're following the trail. They go where it goes, north or otherwise. And if they decide to leave, they'll be following the trail back. And right after I thought this, the movie answered my question--Daryl thinks the music is coming from the exact center of the magnetic disturbance. If he can do decent enough math and the group has a little bit of luck, they'll be able to find where that spot is. Teddy wants that information, of course, because the answer to the 70 year old mystery might well be there too.

During the next mental checkup, we learn that the townie's name is Liv McCann. So there's that. Liv is apparently the coalmine canary for the group because she's the first one to not be able to answer one of Myrick's questions (she gets flustered and angry trying to recite the alphabet backwards, which might well be caused by the music or whatever influence the music is having on everyone). She skips O, but that may or may not mean something. There's another fork in the path where Daryl has to use his mad cartographic skills to plot a course, and the music now has a vocalist audible to the entire group. "Mexicali Rose" is the song that everyone hears at night, so at least it's something smooth and enjoyable. And it's obvious that something is playing that music. It's not likely to just be a gramophone somewhere in a clearing; instead, the music is coming from some entity or entities out there in the wilderness. Could it just be a lure to get the investigators close enough to destroy? Sure could, but there's not enough information yet.

Teddy is the next one to go through a mental diagnostic, and breaks down crying because he can't hear the music any more. He rejects an offer of sympathy from Myrick and wants to know if the other man misses hearing it (which he doesn't). He then asks the doctor what's going on with the various tests, and finds out that everyone else is displaying slight but increasing signs of mental breakdown. The doctor thinks there's plenty that they've already found for the future book and going back is a good idea. Teddy thinks they need to keep going because he wants to find out what's at the center of the pattern. (And I start to wonder if the music is a carrier for whatever is screwing with everyone's minds, or if the scraping and buzzing noises mixed in with it are, or if both things are two halves of the mind-eroding signal.)

And Cy thinks everyone needs to know about the incredibly poisonous berries that Daryl was fucking around with (although, thankfully, not eating yet). It's some sort of deadly nightshade thing that looks like a blueberry and people eating the wrong one are going to either be in a world of hurt or far beyond pain any more. Everyone takes a look at the berry and promises not to eat any of them. Daryl has a bottle of booze and Teddy thinks it's a good time for a party; he and Cy have a fire-building contest to see who does better at taming nature. This sequence is done as still black-and-white photos with voiceovers from the various characters. It's a little artsy and reminiscent of The American Astronaut, which is a heck of a thing to be influenced by.

Liv wakes Teddy up to confess that she never got any information from her grandfather about the Friar disappearances. She also says that if you live in town you understand the disappearances inherently and if you're not from there you can't really be told what's going on in a way you'd understand. That doesn't bode well for writing a book about anything. And it really doesn't bode well for Jill hearing singing and shouting as she pokes at the ashes of a campfire in the gray predawn light. Myrick's most recent test of Jill that day shows a near-total wipe of her memory. The doctor is willing to cut and run that minute, but Teddy's in charge and he says to give it just one more day and then they can go back if everyone deteriorates further.

So onward they go, with Erin wanting to take another reading with a sextant and virtually everyone else collapsing for an impromptu break. Erin and Daryl have an argument that escalates to shouting and just about open sobbing after she drops her sextant--she wants Daryl to lose that hat he picked up and has been wearing for a week; he wants to know if their navigational aid has been scratched. The argument turns into a fight, which turns into Erin fleeing and Daryl tearing one of her legs off with his bare hands while the group watches numbly and then--far too late--tries to help. The music, which had been gone, flares up along with a weird metallic undertone of sound while Erin dies. The expedition (other than Daryl, who ran off into the forest) unanimously decides that it's officially Fleeing Time but there's some ambiguity about whether or not they will be able to find their way back to the trail's start because they've turned and forked a couple dozen times over the last week. Cy thinks he'll be able to navigate back and they nearly decide to abandon Daryl to the woods and get safely back to home.

Instead, Jill breaks down screaming about the ever-present music while Cy and Teddy try to find Daryl in the woods so he can get dragged back to civilization. Liv takes the go-kart and a red piece of clothing to mark Erin's body while off in the woods Teddy and Cy argue about the music and then catch a glimpse of Daryl running away. They try to sneak in pursuit and the walkie-talkie Teddy's carrying decides to beep and squeal, alerting Daryl to their presence. But Daryl doesn't sound like himself, near tears as he breaks through the denial and mental breakdown to understand what he did. Teddy tries to reason with him and eventually gets through to him, offering to take him back to civilization after tying his hands together as a precaution. Daryl agrees and approaches the pair with his hands out. But it's nighttime before they bring him back to the campsite.

That night, when Teddy's on watch, he asks Daryl about the trail-marking numbers in his notebook that they need to interpret correctly in order to get back home. But Daryl just wants to talk about how much he likes listening to that ever-present music. Then he says he hears "the people in the music" and gains a little bit of coherence to tell Teddy that the numbers walked (according to pedometers that people were wearing) and the distance traveled according to his math and measurements were off by twenty miles or more. I expect there'd be some variance, but not of that magnitude. The path everyone's been traveling on looks like it's not obeying the same physical laws that every other spot on Earth does--and it's also reminiscent of the three doomed filmmakers walking one direction all day and winding up back where they started in The Blair Witch Project. Though in that film, the threat was external as opposed to internal. According to Daryl, the road they're on can only be traveled forward. I don't know if he has more information than he's sharing or if he's losing his mind, and I'm not sure which implication is worse for the group.

But worse than that, he tells Teddy that there's a page of calculations in his book that will guide them to the end of the road. And under the fear and disquiet, Teddy still wants to solve the mystery. And that solution lies at the end of the Yellowbrickroad, if Daryl's largely coherent description is anything to go by. Then, in the middle of the night, the music starts to dissolve into static and silence, then return at painfully high volumes. Nobody can hear each other talking when the music's at high tide, but then it fades away completely (only to return in a blast of static that incapacitates the group out of sheer pain). Everyone covers their ears except Daryl, whose hands are tied behind his back.

They set out on the trail, trying to return home, but bursts of noise and chaos knock them to the ground at intervals. At this point the colors are bleached out of the film, leaving it dull and greyish as a way to reflect how badly everyone's dealing with this new assault. Then they hear laughter and see a pile of wood in the distance with a figure standing in front of it. It's Erin's body lashed to a crucifix with a big straw hat (and the gruesome effect when she slumps over from a sound blast is the most distressing thing in the film so far)--and yes, kids, that means they've found a scarecrow on the Yellowbrickroad.. Teddy climbs a hill and gets a look at the distance, where there's a flickering pillar of light beckoning him to the end of the trail (I couldn't help but think of bug zappers when I saw it). But while he's doing that (aided by wax earplugs, like Odysseus' crew avoiding the song of the sirens) Daryl gets his hands on the machete Cy was using to clear a path earlier, and cuts the ropes holding his hands behind his back. I'm not completely sure one person could do that on their own, but it makes a horrible kind of sense that he could.

Daryl drives off in the travel cart and leaves everyone else, but leaves his notebook behind as a way for everyone to get home (according to Jill) or lure them further into the cosmic pitcher plant they're walking on (according to Liv). Myrick and Cy get into an argument that turns physical about which direction everyone should go in for the best chance of escaping their predicament and it looks like we're seconds away from another killing in the group. Cy says he's going due west now, heading out on his own without being tied down by the concerns of keeping everyone else alive. And Teddy, having laid eyes on his goal, thinks they should keep going north ("I think we should go home with answers"). Cy and Liv are leaving in one direction (with Cy's knife) while everyone else goes another--and north is supposed to be completely off the table at this point. Cy splits up the gear as fairly as he can and heads off with Liv in the night. The music comes back to see him off, which is a nice touch.

That night, Teddy and Melissa make love in a rainstorm, trying to ignore the raving voice in the distance (Daryl? Cy?); in the morning Melissa worries that they're never going to be able to leave the road and that it's taken over their lives completely. She wakes up the other members of the group sobbing and screaming when Teddy leaves her tend to try and see the track they need to follow from higher ground. The film shifts to Cy and Liv in the woods working through their rations and progressing in the direction that Cy says is west. It can't be good news when Liv starts looking at a cluster of those "bad berries" he was talking about earlier. He says they get the eater high, but too many of them is poisonous. Liv thinks she's probably okay with one, and then Cy pops a single berry in his mouth as well.

The film switches gears for a moment, abruptly cutting to Daryl's point of view on the travel cart zooming along the trail while Cy and Liv lie on the ground giggling about how much they like the forest. Eventually they go off deeper into the forest, with Cy asking if it's okay to kiss Liv and her shutting him down (the berries haven't got her that high, I guess). Then the movie's focus switches back to Teddy and Melissa walking along, and Jill the intern slowing down and getting farther and farther behind from them on the trail. Back with Liv, she starts coming down from the berry high and mentions that everyone living in Friar knows the real reason all the walkers went on down the trail back in 1940 (but we're still about half an hour from the end of the film so the audience doesn't get a hint right now). She does say everyone in Friar thinks of the trial as "a way out", a last-resort way to pull the ripcord and escape from the stifling confines of small town existence with no real chance of doing any better for the next few decades. I can't help but wonder if this is the only group that's gone down the road in the last seventy years, or just the first one with outsiders tagging along with a townie on the way to their doom.

That night as the jazzy music plays in the distance Melissa reveals that she has the bag of lollipops and other candy left--it was overlooked when everyone divvied up the supplies and now there's a treat for everyone. Jill winds up eating a massive amount of the stuff overnight; it seems reasonable that if you thought you were going to die soon you wouldn't want to ration the chocolates for a later day. When the morning comes everyone trudges silently along, Jill in the back apologizing (tellingly, we don't see the scene where she gets found out or confesses to eating the bag full of sweets--the filmmakers assume we know that had to have happened in order for her to be apologizing). Then, with nobody but the audience looking to her, Jill steps off a ridge to her death without a sound. Teddy plods onward, either ignoring what happened or completely unaware of it.

She's not the only one who's struggling with her own brain; back with Cy and Liv, the forest ranger admits that for miles and miles of their walk, he's been imagining all kinds of horrific things to do to his traveling companion. And if he keeps hearing that music, he's going to try them sooner or later. Liv is too numb to run at this point, even after hearing that particular True Confession. Cy asks her to get the rope; apparently there's still enough hope in his heart that they might escape before he does something irredeemable that he'd rather take precautions so he won't hurt Liv and keep pressing onward.

And Teddy's walked off on his own, leaving Myrick and Melissa together in a clearing, listening to the woman's voice in the song and feeling it calling to them. Myrick promises he won't leave his friend alone and I think he even means it. They lean together wearily as we get another shot from the POV of the travel cart (and by this time I wonder what the eventual reveal is going to be about who's driving it because we haven't seen Daryl any of the last few times the shot's been from this point of view).

Cy, at his own request, has been tied up by Liv and asks her to break his neck (he doesn't want his blood on the knife). She can't bring herself to do it and leaves Cy on his knees struggling with the ropes by himself while she sits down beneath a tree. Night falls again, with nobody managing to achieve anything meaningful either to get away from the path or find their own death. Liv goes back to Cy that night and does manage to break his neck although he asked her to stop. And as dawn breaks (I think; it might just be blue-for-night) Melissa stumbles across Dr. Myrick's body, with a videotaped suicide note and slashed wrists. The note includes him referring to "clicking his heels" when he talks about killing himself to get away from the road and he runs through one of his own mental-acuity tests until he fades out. Melissa keeps replaying the last nonsense syllable he utters, trying not to let him go completely.

At the same time (and the lighting's changed so I guess it was dawn earlier) Teddy is staggering along following the instructions on one page of Daryl's notebook; when he gets close enough to Melissa his walkie-talkie makes hers crackle and squeal. Melissa try to communicate with her husband but nothing gets through but static. But the next voice she does hear is Daryl, in a cave behind her, telling her to run before he kills her with the machete that Cy brought along (and that Daryl swiped earlier). She sprints off while Teddy keeps listening to the cracking static on his walkie-talkie, and then the signal disappears. He tries to call her back and the film reveals that she didn't get far before Daryl caught up to her, with lethal results. Liv stumbles over the go-kart while Daryl's off murdering Melissa and while Teddy tries to call back to her; she's able to end Daryl's life because he was looking for Teddy and not watching his back. All that remains for Liv to do is eat as many of those berries as she can keep down. And then there was one, still looking for the enter of the maze.

There's a shot of a white-gloved hand pulling Melissa's body away intercut with shots of the two remaining people on the expedition, though, and I don't know what the hell that's got to do with anything right now. And Teddy continues to go onward, literally crawling now as he tries to get closer to the center of the mystery. He does eventually find something, but I don't think it's supposed to be making literal sense when he gets there. And the person he finds at that location is wearing bright white gloves...

I don't think the ending or the final images make any kind of literal sense, and I'm also confident I don't get the metaphor either. Whatever the filmmakers were trying for, I didn't get it. And I have to say that from a great premise and fine, naturalistic performances comes an eventual nothingburger of an ending. Which is quite fitting if you tend to look at travel as more about the journey than the destination. The road is there to be walked on, and the ending is just where things stop.

It's too bad, because there are some really neat unsettling moments as the story progresses, but it doesn't really wind up as anything. I'm not sure what kind of ending I would have accepted or enjoyed, so it may be that there was no way to wrap this one up in a satisfying way (and certainly it's not the only movie to stumble in the denouement). Which puts me in the curious position of recommending a movie--cautiously--because it's interesting until it isn't, and trying to warn people at the start that they aren't going to find out some of the things the film is supposed to be about.

Such are the hazards when you're selecting movies specifically because they start with a rare letter. Usually cinema and Scrabble don't work well together, and I would have to say that overall this is an exception to that general rule.

This is the penultimate review for this year's HubrisWeen, the blogging marathon where people review 26 movies in 26 days. Click on that banner to see what the other four participants went for this time.


  1. I found this movie to be something of an endurance test--I found the characters annoying, and the soundtrack and cinematography really grated on my nerves, but I kept watching because of tantalizing hints of a cool ending. That never came.

    I wonder--is the movie an attempt to trick the viewer into experiencing a bit of the spiral into madness of the characters? Nah, probably not, but it kinda felt that way.

  2. I thought it was interesting enough to keep me watching, but MAN, what a nothingburger of an ending. I was also expecting some kind of huge reveal with Daryl because they kept showing his POV in the go kart but not him, so obviously he was going to have something creepy and awesome going on when he came back. Nope.

    I think they wound up making about 60-70 percent of a good movie here, and I'm not sorry I bought the movie. But with a little bit more time and money and a couple more passes on that screenplay I think it would have been an utter classic.