Being bedridden with a migraine is definitely on my list of least favorite things to do but finding random little film gems is pretty high on my favorite list so I’m calling this weekend a draw.
After high school I worked on and off in an independent video store for a couple of years where the only perk was free access to a 30,000 titles film library. This was before the dawn of torrents so this was the best film education that money could not buy. I’m sure everyone who is interested in filmmaking knows this, but the best way to learn about what makes a movie good is to watch independent non-Hollywood movies. Hollywood movies are too flashy and too filled with good-looking famous people that feel like your friends to really notice if the story works or not. And because Hollywood movies are so expensive to make, they can’t be very complex because it has to reach a wide audience in order to make their money back. There can be no ambiguous endings and all loose ends have to be explained so that the audience can leave fulfilled on what is, just like fast food, basically empty calories.
Just like reading Shakespeare and learning to appreciate classical music, it takes a certain stamina to watch independent movies. It is actually harder to care about actors who look like normal people that you have never seen before. The main reason Angelina Jolie can demand $20 million per movie is because her flawless face is out of this world and people will pay to watch her do just about anything for 2 hours. Picture quality, sound and color will also be somewhat muted compared to Hollywood movies for the very simple reason that most independent movies costs less than 1 million dollars whereas your standard Hollywood movie these days cost between $50-$100 millions, blockbusters usually around $200 millions. While it’s mind boggling to me that a sub-par comedy starring Adam Sandler or Jennifer Aniston with little to none special effects can tip the $100 millions scale, it is the sad truth these days. Don’t ask me how or why, but if I were to venture a guess I would say most of that money goes to marketing and Photoshop for posters.
Slower pace, unknown actors and scripts that sometimes don’t make sense. It’s all part of the independent movie experience. But it’s worth the effort because sometimes you are rewarded with mind tripping imagination enhancers like this little gem.
YellowBrickRoad (2012) by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton
In 1940 the entire population of Friar, NH, left their homes and vanished into the woods. The bodies of nearly 300 of these missing people were later discovered, mutilated corpses which bore the signs of murder and exposure to the elements. The rest of the townsfolk were never recovered, lost to the eerie and still unexplored environs of New Hampshire. In 2008, the coordinates for the “YELLOWBRICKROAD” trail head were declassified. Teddy Barnes is obsessed with the mystery of Friar and, upon detaining the newly released documents, gathers a team together to walk the trail that has laid hidden and undisturbed for seventy years.
If that synopsis peaks your interest like it did mine, I recommend you stop reading and go watch it. I’ll be discussing some details that I found fascinating below and they will be very much a spoiler if you plan to watch it. Fair warning :)
You can even stream it for free right now, if you have a fast internet connection.
First of all, the movie has a 4.6 rating on IMDB. Bummer. But then I read a review that said “if you like David Lynch” and I was sold. I had a migraine, I was already in bed and I love me some good old fashioned David Lynch. So I went in, no expectations, and first ten minutes didn’t disappoint. The mood is immediately set by one of the first scenes of Teddy picking up the recently declassified coordinates to the YellowBrickRoad. Even though we don’t even see the old man clerk handing him the files, or maybe because we don’t see him, the creep factor is high. There is something WEIRD about the people in this town. That scene was completely out of the David Lynch book and it instantly endeared me to the film. Afterwards we meet the team and the whole thing seems very 21st century – Teddy has brought all the modern equipment money can buy and even brought along a psychologist to make sure no one is losing their marbles on the trail. But seriously, how scary can the woods be? Unless, of course, there are supernatural forces at play but I really think the film does a good job of balancing eerie yet grounded and just plain implausible.
I think the main reason why I liked this movie enough to recommend it is because in true Lynchian style, it drops little hints throughout the movie. Subtle enough to miss if you’re not paying attention but enough so that you can solve the riddle after the ambiguous ending. Most movies today don’t challenge the viewer at all. Our collective attention span is ridiculous. How many of you watches movies or TV while playing on your phone, surfing the internet, or both? I definitely do. And I’ve noticed TV has adapted to our habits and it’s fully possible now to catch an entire episode of CSI or Criminal Minds (like I did yesterday) without looking at the screen. Story told through sound is so optimized for short attention spans that we barely need images anymore while watching TV. But movies are still a different ball game. Film is still an art form that requires full use of the senses, and YellowBrickRoad did that masterfully.
The coordinates tell Teddy that the trail starts inside an old movie theater. That is the first clue. But the team is frustrated, they think the expedition is over before it has even begun. Teddy finds a girl working in the movie theater that promises him to take him to the real trail head as long as he lets her come along. She also wants to know what happened in those woods. She tells him the entire city was watching The Wizard of Oz in this movie theater before they walked in 1940. They watched it a lot – the tape is worn out. So begins the theme throughout the movie of The Wizard of Oz. It is referred to so much I know some people will find it corny. I think it kind of adds to the creep factor. Although it is never shown on tape that image stayed with me; an entire town dressed in their finest clothes compulsively watching Oz for weeks before they all just decide one day to leave everything behind and walked into the woods. Maybe they were under some kind of spell? I think it’s extra creepy because it’s a real, harmless movie, too.
Most of the horror in this movie is the soundtrack. That’s right. The murders are brief and there is little terror – the main fiend is the soundtrack. After about a week of walking on the trail the characters are stunned to hear popular music from the 1940’s playing, loudly. For the better part of the second and third act, the soundtrack we hear is what is haunting the characters. It drives them crazy and it’s this slow burn of madness that is the real villain of the movie. At first they theorize – could this be the path some some actual deity – is the YellowBrickRoad the road to God? Maybe the townsfolk knew this and walked into the woods to tell God to stop World War 2. Chills. I love it! Because it absolutely doesn’t make sense that God is camping out in New Hampshire but when you have been listening to old records play in the sky seven days away from civilization, I think it’s clear nothing fucking makes sense anymore.
Eventually, of course, they all turn on each other and there are some inventive kills. It seems most people are ok with this part, it’s what comes after that they don’t like. Teddy, as the sole survivor, has walked the furthest along the road but there is still no end in sight. He fully expects to die and crawls the final few feet until… his hand touches a brick building. Has he reached the end of the road? He enters the building and it is, naturally, the movie theater in which they started. I seriously got so excited during this part. Of course it is! The road is contained within the theater. Movies are life, life is a movie?
If you are familiar with David Lynch you know that some parts of his films remain unexplainable. They defy logic but they work on some other, emotional level, and therefore add to the film experience. That’s what I felt at the end of YellowBrickRoad. I knew it made sense that Teddy ended up back where he started, after all, The Wizard of Oz can only live at the movies, but I can’t logically explain why it makes sense. They did walk for two weeks in the woods. They didn’t walk backwards. After he reaches the movie theater he is shown into the auditorium where he is shown a video of his dead wife screaming in some apocalyptic wasteland. Is it hell? Teddy screams. The screen goes black.
Movies like these are fun. They stay with you. They make you go on the internet and search for theories by others. They make you think. Maybe the movie is not a perfect 10 but it’s a very valiant effort, especially by two first timer writer/directors. I feel sad that 60% of IMBD missed that. And I still want to know exactly what happened to the townspeople but you know what, I can live with a little mystery.