None for All, All for Naught: The Dissolution of Morale in YellowBrickRoad

The more expansive selection of American Netflix has allowed me to catch up on some smaller horror movies that I never got around to, and almost all of them were good. At some point in the near future I hope to discuss Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact, Nick Murphy’s The Awakening and Ti West’s The Innkeepers, all three of which range from good to excellent. For now, though, I want to talk about another movie I watched, one which had an effect on me like no other. It’s called YellowBrickRoad, written and directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton, and it might be the first horror movie to have ever traumatized me.

The synopsis of YellowBrickRoad reads somewhat like a knockoff of The Blair Witch Project: in 1940, the entire 572-person population of the New Hampshire town of Friar dropped everything they were doing and wandered down a forested trail. Many bodies were found, as well as one raving survivor, but everyone else just up and disappeared. In modern times, a small team of amateur historians, cartographers and explorers venture down the path, which has been nicknamed the “Yellow Brick Road” by locals (The Wizard of Oz had been playing in Friar’s theatre the day everyone vanished). Their goal is to determine what happened to the missing townspeople and to map the previously uncharted forest. Also along for the ride is a behavioural psychologist who plans to measure any psychological effects the trail might have on the group, periodically having each member of the team answer memory-centric questions in front of a camera and track any changes in their personalities. Despite this description, it’s not a found footage affair like Blair Witch, with only the psychological observation sequences filmed on a handheld, in-universe camera.

In its actual content and execution, though, YellowBrickRoad feels more like the “Navidson Record” portion of House of Leaves: the forest proves practically unchartable, the distances between points of reference seemingly changing as the group progresses further into the woods; the explorers are plagued by strange sounds—where the characters of House of Leaves are tormented by a guttural, shifting roar, YellowBrickRoad’s adventurers hear tinny, 1930s-era swing music off in the distance; most unnervingly, the characters’ dispositions and memories start taking a turn for the worst (when one is asked what her earliest memory is, she says it was stepping onto the Yellow Brick Road).

What House of Leaves, The Blair Witch Project and YellowBrickRoad all have in common—besides their documentarian aspects—is the use of an unknowable force as its antagonist. One of the scariest things about Blair Witch is that the audience is unable to put a name or a face to the presence terrorizing Heather, Josh and Mike in the woods. Yes, the people of Burkittsville talk about the hermit Rustin Parr, and yes it’s implied that something possesses one of the main characters for a more dire purpose (at least that’s how I interpret it), but the evil in that film can’t accurately be described as a corporeal—or even incorporeal—being. It’s a child’s laughter, it’s a far-off heckling, it’s the way the forest seems to bend in on itself or even—so it’s hinted—displace itself in time. Even “Blair Witch” seems a paltry attempt to label something that’s undefinable by conventional terms.

In House of Leaves, the eponymous house is analyzed and deconstructed a thousand times over by the in-universe experts and theorists who watched Will Navidson’s film—if said film exists within that fiction. It’s left ambiguous, and to sum things up quickly the reader isn’t sure which narrative is the “real” one by the book’s end. A great deal of the horror that every character in its pages and even the reader comes up against is the thought of encountering something completely unknowable, that can’t be understood by a human mind or any mind at all.

And then there’s what lies in wait at the end of the trail in YellowBrickRoad or, rather, the trail itself. The path the characters take is completely unremarkable and, with its fairly open canopy and numerous clearings, isn’t as labyrinth or claustrophobic as the forest in Blair Witch. Neither are the night scenes as frightening as that other film’s (no laughing children to be heard). All that’s immediately off-putting is the music. It plays night and day, sometimes pausing for hours, sometimes blasting at a deafening volume. But this music is the driving force leading to the horror that eventually ensues, or at least that’s what implied, and at one point becomes so cacophonous it seems a monster in and of itself. At the film’s end we are given a concrete answer as to where it’s coming from, but that answer merely opens up a plethora of questions.

(Admittedly, the ending is where the film actually stumbles, the final, ambiguous sequence visibly stretching the movie’s already meagre budget ($380,000). Friend and fellow writer Cameron Suey called it a “smart mess,” which I’d say is fairly accurate, and if Holland and Mitton ever created a Kickstarter to raise a couple million dollars for a director’s cut I would gladly contribute what I could.)

The deceptively twisting forest and the tinny music are only minor explanations as to why I found YellowBrickRoad so traumatic and upsetting, however. The violence that ensues, seemingly brought on by the persistent, mysterious music, is a bigger contributor. But to get to the heart of why this movie affected me so much, we must discuss an unexpected—and very niche—subject: morale in horror movies.

Generally speaking, the victims in horror movies care for one another. They tend to be friends, relatives and coworkers, so that care comes naturally, but bonds form even between strangers, as they do in real life in the midst of stressful or disastrous situations. They look for one another when separated, try to get each other to safety, and go back for the people who are stranded even when it flies in the face of the primordial human survival instinct. Though it’s never explained what happens to Heather and Mike at the end of Blair Witch, they end up where they do because they’re trying to find their lost friend. That empathy extends to non-humans as well: in Alien, Ripley goes out of her way to retrieve her cat, Jones, even though she knows doing so might put her in danger. So even though a great deal of horror movies end on a sad or disturbing notes, the viewer can find a bit of solace in that up until the end, the characters we were rooting for genuinely had each other’s best interests in mind.

YellowBrickRoad doesn’t go that route, and this isn’t the fault of poor writing but something I think Holland and Mitton were deliberately aiming for. The movie’s central horror, and the one that, over a week later, I feel upset me the most, is the dissolution of those bonds between friends and family, manifesting as apathy, antipathy or even sheer, destructive malice. It first appears as violence, the most overt and horrifying case being the brutal murder of one sibling at the hands of the other, shown primarily through another character’s binoculars—interestingly, the distance here doesn’t diminish the sheer horror of this scene but actually makes it worse by tying it directly to a character’s more intimate first-person perspective. Later, it takes the more emotionally damaging form of abandonment: the expedition leader sneaks away from the group in search of answers at the end of the trail, in the process abandoning his wife in spite of her begging him to stay just the previous night. And further on, when a younger member of the group is ostracized for eating all of their candy, she finds herself unable to bear the other characters’ silent contempt and steps off a cliff; her companions continue on unperturbed.

I’m reminded of why I found last year’s Evil Dead remake so effective. Aside from making demonic possession an allegory for drug addiction—which warrants its own essay at a later date—Fede Alvarez uses the film to depict the horror of doing awful things to the people you love, or doing horrible things to yourself, or watching loved ones do those horrible things to themselves, etc. Two things save it from being as bleak an affair as YellowBrickRoad: the sheer extremity of its gore and the fact that all of the characters care for each other—Hell, the movie is predicated of a group of friends going to a cabin in an act of solidarity while one of them tries to overcome her drug problem.

YellowBrickRoad forcibly removes that companionship, that last bit of humanist optimism, and while there’s nary a Cthulhu or an Old One to be seen it is in this utter hopelessness a work of Lovecraftian horror. As its characters proceed farther down the titular trail they’re simply moving closer to a force of sheer, apathetic oblivion—and when they get to the end they don’t even have each other for comfort. By that point they’ve already abandoned or destroyed one another. And they aren’t ignorant to that fact, either. In fact, the final sequence could be seen as one character realizing what they have done and how it’s affected their loved ones. It was a lot to take in, a truly harrowing experience on par with watching Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, and afterward I had to hang out with one of my best friends just so I could shake that feeling. I actually dreaded pulling up the film on Netflix again just so I could get some of the details right.

But, I want to watch it again. I’ll need time between viewings, but I can’t lie about how, regardless of how horrifying and upsetting this movie is, I feel compelled to see it all the way through again. In a sense, I’m like one of the hikers on the Yellow Brick Road, knowing that something awful awaits me, but also knowing that I need to see it through to the bitter end.

YellowBrickRoad is available to stream on Netflix USA.

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Jesse Holland said...
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