THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
YellowBrickRoad is the second in a summer-long series of horror films presented by Bloody Disgusting and The Collective that are coming to AMC theaters in 30 top markets. It opens on June 1, and will play Wednesday and Friday nights throughout the month.
At the beginning, a title screen informs us that in 1940, the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire (572 people in all) inexplicably wandered en masse into the wilderness, leaving all their worldly possessions behind. A search party eventually found the remains of 300 of them. Many of the citizens had been brutally slaughtered.
This legend has piqued the interest of a modern-day team of researchers, led by Teddy Barnes (Michael Laurino). The team - which includes a navigator and a psychologist, among others - sets out to follow the trail Friar's residents took, hopefully finding some answers to this mystery. They do indeed find them, although not in the manner they'd hoped. Out in the wilderness, far from civilization, old-timey music can be heard, with no indication of where it originates. Other unexplained, disturbing sounds torment them. The farther down the trail they go, the more the individual members start losing their grasp on reality, which leads to shocking acts of violence.
Despite a couple of primo gore moments, YellowBrickRoad is far more interested in psychological horror than in the physical kind. The constant music, which seems to abruptly increase in volume as a means of assault, serves almost like Chinese water torture. Different characters react in different ways; some succumb to it immediately, while others (most notably Teddy) want to push through it and keep moving. The film, written and directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton, conveys the sense of sanity gradually slipping away.
While effectively acted by a skilled ensemble cast that includes "Smallville" co-star Cassidy Freeman and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead's Lee Wilkof, the thing that gives YellowBrickRoad such an impact is its use of sound to generate dread. There is a scene near the middle that ranks as one of the most brilliantly-staged sequences I've ever seen in a horror picture. A series of shrill screeching noises bombards the research team. They try to keep moving, but the sounds are so ear-piercing that it becomes a struggle to walk, or even stand. Clever editing gives the impression that this goes on for a long time, possibly hours. Each time one of the noises hits, the camera shakes a little too, further allowing us to grasp the agony the characters are going through. Also, the distortion of old music (think Bing Crosby and show tunes) that is present throughout the film could be corny, but it isn't. The sound mix is spot-on, turning something innocuous into something sinister.
I think the story would have benefited from a bit more individual character development, and the ending, while undeniably creepy, is also a bit too abstract. I'm not entirely sure I understood the meaning of the final scene. In spite of that, YellowBrickRoad is unsettling and quite unlike any other horror flick you're likely to have seen.
( out of four)
YellowBrickRoad is rated R for violent content, language, some sexuality and drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.