(Bloody Disgusting) Mark Kermode — film reviewer for the BBC, The Observer, and Sight and Sound Magazine — is an immensely intelligent, frighteningly articulate, and wonderfully witty man. He can tell you in thirty seconds why any given film is good or bad, and he's nearly always right. He has stated, on countless occasions, that The Exorcist is not only the best horror film ever made, it's the best film of any kind ever made. While second assertion is too subjective to discuss in a meaningful way, let's stick with the first: The Exorcist is the best horror film ever made. That's not hard to defend; look up any list of Top 10 horror films of all time, and the odds are 99% that The Exorcist will be number one.
The thing is, I would probably have agreed with that, until Saturday night. Saturday night is when I watched YellowBrickRoad, and it blew my mind — destroyed it in a way that was both beautiful and rather awful. There were moments, while I was watching this film, that I literally felt like I might be watching something evil -- something that could have a destructive effect on my life if I watched any further. I don't mean something depraved but ultimately silly like Hostel or Human Centipede; I mean a genuine force of chaos and insanity. I've seen hundreds of horror films in my life, read as many horror novels, and this film showed me what horror really is. I immediately wanted to go back and watch it again.
I'm going to go ahead and say it: YellowBrickRoad is the best horror film ever made. There is a certain type of person with a fascination for dark and twisted things that goes through life searching out those experiences that make you feel alive by showing you the eternal nearness of death, loss, and madness. There is another type of person who goes through life trying as hard as they can to avoid those experiences. I'm one of the former. Horror is very hard to do effectively, which is why it's so often maligned as a genre filled with sophomoric garbage. There aren't many perfect horror films in the world, but I would argue that The Exorcist, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's dreamlike masterpiece Cure, The Ring (American version), The Grudge (Japanese version), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing (Carpenter's version), In the Mouth of Madness, The Last Broadcast, Alien, Lost Highway, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Others, Session 9, Dead Ringers, and Vertigo are among them. Think about all those amazing and disturbing films; YellowBrickRoad is better than all of them.
Before we continue, I would urge you — if you're a fan of horror films, or you just want to experience something unique — to stop reading and go watch YellowBrickRoad. You should go into it the way I did: with no previous knowledge of the plot. When it's over and you've had time to process it, come back and finish this review.
First off, you will never fully be able to process this film. You'll never completely be done with it, which is a nice way of saying that it will never completely be done with you. The filmmakers, Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland, have hit on something so primal and so flat-out mental that it defies any real analysis. That's not to say that this is some kind of pretentious hodge-podge of surrealist nonsense; on the contrary, it has a very distinct plot, and it makes a very deadly kind of sense...only the kind of sense it makes is nightmare-sense -- the dark end of dream-logic. It reaches into your hind-brain and stirs up things that usually only come out in the deepest slumber. You're left thinking, “Oh yeah. I guess I always kind of suspected that everything is a nightmare and I am in hell, but this film has proven it to me.”
The plot concerns a group of documentarians who are writing a book on the 1940 disappearance of the town of Friar, New Hampshire — every resident of which simply got up one day and walked up the trail known as the Yellow Brick Road into the Great North Woods. The team following their path in 2008 is not making a film; thankfully, the directors of YellowBrickRoad chose not to make this a “found footage” movie. There's nothing wrong with that style, but in this case, it would have been distracting and less effective.
Essentially, we follow the team as they trek deeper into the woods and slowly lose their minds. I won't give any specifics, because there are moments in the film that are so shocking and unexpected that they deserve to be preserved. As you watch, you think to yourself, “I can't believe that just happened. There is no possible way I just saw that.” Even now, I can't believe that this film is real. Thinking about it feels like a nightmare I had. It's just that good.
The painters of the Romantic period valued, above all else, the experience of the “sublime.” To them, this term signified an apprehension of the terrible power and beauty of Nature, and a realization of our own insignificance in comparison. That's the feeling this film maintains for a solid 100 minutes, except in place of “Nature,” substitute “the unknown.” A suffocating dread seeps into the narrative, and the filmmakers orchestrate that slow progression with an incredible patience. This is Mitton and Holland's first feature-length film, and it is perhaps a film that could only have been made by first-time directors; the chances it takes are the kind taken by people who haven't yet been told, “You can't do that.” On the other hand, maybe it's just a work of genius, like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain -- a case of someone knowing exactly what they want to do and doing it.
What YellowBrickRoad understands that so many films of its genre do not is that, in order for us to be truly horrified by bad things happening to people, we must first see those people as fundamentally decent. Even in Lynch's films, there's always the sense that the characters have it coming to some extent. YellowBrickRoad gives us a group of characters that seem absolutely normal, kind, thoughtful, good-natured, and brave — then it systematically debases, torments, murders, and drives them insane, for no reason at all. Maybe they have it coming in some kind of cosmic sense, but if they do, then we all do.
There are two really stunning things about the film. The acting is raw and daring, showing us exactly how real people would respond to such insanity. The cast manages to add little touches of humanity to their roles, even as they portray characters that are in a profound state of shock for a long stretch of time. Second, there's the atmosphere of cloying madness — largely achieved through the sound design — that takes hold early in the film and just does not let up. You keep expecting some minor detour into familiar territory, but it never happens. The film has a mental space all its own, and it inhabits that space completely, without shame or apology.
YellowBrickRoad is a journey into the howling heart of darkness. These writer/directors have redefined my expectations for what a horror film should be, and made me feel like a wide-eyed kid in the process. If their next film can even come close to accomplishing something like this again, they should be given every opportunity to do so. However, if they can't, I won't blame them; this kind of demented inspiration may only come around once.
For Fans Of: David Lynch, The Exorcist, The Ring, The Last Broadcast, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Cure
Why We Like It: truly terrifying, surreal plot, mounting dread, stellar sound design