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DIRECTED BY:  Jesse Holland, Andy Mitton

FEATURING:  Cassidy Freeman, Anessa Ramsey, Laura Heisler, Lee Wilkof, Clark Freeman, Michael Laurino, Alex Draper, Tara Giordano, Sam Elmore

PLOT:  A small entourage of pseudo-anthropologists encounters disorientation, bedlam and horror on the trail of a historic mass disappearance.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Yellowbrickroad’s set-up is not so odd—a bunch of 20-somethings lost in the woods. We’ve seen this a thousand times, although some very strange things occur in the woods in Yellowbrickroad. What pushes it over the precipice of weird is the ending, and what it means. The gruesome, ethereal ending changes the entire story into a bizarre horror odyssey, and this, combined with surreal settings and occasional use of blue monochrome cinematography, deliver a viewing experience that morphs from garden variety unusual to full-blown weird.

COMMENTS:  A fortnight ago I discussed the independent puzzler, Resolution (2012).  It’s plodding and pensive, but delivers on its clever high concept with a disturbing climax. The glibly-titled Yellowbrickroad follows a like formula and offers a similar experience. It’s enigmatic, and saves all of its open-ended answers for its lurid finale. While Yellowbrickroad has fewer puzzler paradoxes than Resolution, first time feature film writer/directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton do a pretty good job considering their half mil micro-budget, incorporating intriguing and colorful elements of mystery, and a couple of mesmerizing characters, into the script.

In Yellowbrickroad, several young academics set out to re-chart a rural New England zone inexplicably reopened and declassified after an unsolved mass exodus emptied a nearby town 70 years ago. And, you guessed, it, everyone disappeared into them thar hills. Except for their intestines, that is.

OK, not just their intestines. Other parts were found too, but not nearly enough to account for everyone. Some of the emigrants, intestines and all, just…well they just vanished. We get the general idea.

Or do we?

Because, except for several token nods to the 1939 classic The Wizard Of Oz, Yellowbrickroad’s enigma is so perplexing that we mostly forget to question several pretty far-fetched plot holes. Such as why people in the town where everyone disappeared a generation ago are so tight-lipped. If everyone left, presumably today’s residents aren’t the descendents, and so have no stake in the matter.

But that’s OK, because something so unspeakable pervades the locale that just maybe it has a hold on everyone who is afraid to talk about it. One thing’s for sure: when a group of 20-somethings venture into the spooky, spooky hills in search of a macabre mystery, we can predict that…well, let’s just say, “we knew there’d be death!” A lot of it.

To its credit however, Yellowbrickroad avoids typical deep woods “boo!” and splatter clichés, instead building on the atmosphere inherent in being disoriented in a labyrinthine forest. As the team’s equipment fails, so do their minds, and the fact-seeking sleuths succumb to bedlam and violence. Time and space mean something different here, and all the while, period music from the era of the disappearance inexplicably wafts across the landscape. The trekkers can’t determine it’s source—or the way back. The path, nicknamed the “Yellow Brick Road” since its original followers departed from a local theater playing The Wizard Of Oz, held then, as today, some kind of symbolic “way out.”

Or not.

For the woods have swallowed our crew of intrepid explorers, their navigational aids won’t work, and there seems to be no way off the trail. Reminiscent of an old fable about suicide, in which those who killed themselves were presumed to be dissatisfied with reality, and wound up sentenced to increasingly topsy-turvy, contrary worlds each time they attempted escape, the Yellow Brick Road in Yellowbrickroad obviously leads to some much weirder reality, with the grim caveat of “be careful what you wish for.”

Like the aforementioned Resolution, or the engrossing but talky, independent sci-fi thriller Primer (2004), Yellowbrickroad is a niche film. It takes its dialogue-saturated time delivering us to the sensational payoff. All three vehicles would be more effective as half-hour shorts.

Yellowbrickroad offers some gruesome, blackly comedic skullduggery along the way, however, and there’s one forceful, enigmatic early hint of what is to come: an unsettling sound effect that everyone will instantly recognize, but absolutely not be able to place. Until the ending, that is, which slaps you with a sickening epitome of recognition. Understanding the sound only adds to the shock value and will have you repeating the tagline from the 1972  The Last House On The Left: “it’s only a movie.”

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“…by about the one-hour mark, nothing has really happened, and instead of continuing to slow simmer the tension, they turn the carnage up to 11 and we arrive at something resembling a mid-’90s Marilyn Manson music video. Just bizarre.”–Michael C. Walsh, The Boston Phoenix (contemporaneous)

Yellowbrickroad movie trailer