Film Review – “YellowBrickRoad”

Independent horror film YellowBrickRoad, the writing and directing debut of Jesse Holland ’02 and Andy Mitton ’01, had it’s Vermont theatrical debut in Dana Auditorium on Sunday night.  The film, which is still seeking a distributor, has screened at the alterna-Sundance “Slamdance” festival and the Atlanta Film Festival, gradually building buzz as a fresh, unsettling, and innovative entry in the growing genre of “indie horror”.

For a Q&A session following the film, Holland was joined by star/Assistant Professor of Theater Alex Draper ’88, star/executive producer Cassidy Freeman ’05, as well as Cori Hundt ’11, Willy McKay ’11, Ross Bell ’10, and Ralph Acevedo ’11, all of whom worked on the film’s crew during its one-month shoot last summer.  The production of YellowBrickRoad was truly a Middlebury affair, with around half the cast and crew consisting of Middlebury students and alumni, leading its creators (Theater majors both) to refer to it jokingly as their “7000 project”, in reference to the 700-level senior projects that Theater majors must complete in their area of focus.  This emphasis on community extended to Holland’s open, gracious attitude towards attendees of the screening, which provided a nice contrast to the snobbish aloofness that Rob Perez ’95 exhibited towards students of his alma mater when his film Nobody screened here several weeks ago.

The “7000” in “7000 project” seems to imply a certain grand scale of the movie’s production.  Such a number may speak truthfully of the heroic effort on the part of all persons involved in shooting YellowBrickRoad in a remote location, but it certainly does not connote a great deal of budgetary freedom.  In fact, one of the most impressive aspects about the film is how much was accomplished on a shoestring budget, especially in the horror film genre, which typically relies greatly on expensive effects to do most of the legwork, in terms of frightening the audience.

The chief way Holland and Mitton created a truly disturbing film without truckloads of money to spend on special effects was to follow the “slow burn” model of horror classics like The Exorcist, Deliverance, and Rosemary’s Baby, which create the most fear through suggestion rather than shocking imagery (especially in the case of “Rosemary’s Baby”).  There are plenty of violent occurrences in YellowBrickRoad, which situates it somewhere between the “slow burn” classics and the horror blockbuster of today, but they shoot “around” the violence, using various techniques to allow the audience to view it as if out of the corners of their eyes, rather than head on.  Furthermore, the movie’s most unsettling quality originates from the mysterious, the unseen, especially its simple, brilliant premise: sourceless, distorted 1930’s pop music echoing over the titular trail in New Hampshire’s “Great North Woods”.

This premise places a great deal of pressure on the film’s sound design, and this came through with flying colors—the sound design was truly innovative, and sometimes almost avant-garde in its brave experimentalism.  This was true as early on as the faux-historical opening montage, and though a few early sloppy moments (poor micing in a living room scene, occasionally de-synched vocals in a diner scene) drew attention to the film’s non-budget, the sound practically carried the film once the music entered and began to work its effects on the confused characters.

Unfortunately, the sloppiness of the sound work in the movie’s first act was mirrored in other areas, as well; the dialogue was often stuffy (at it’s most cringeworthy: “there’s been a terrible tragedy.”), the shooting style changed dramatically from scene to scene, many moments were poorly paced, and the overall plotting felt a bit awkward, all giving much of the film’s first half a feeling of tonal inconsistency.  But the further on it got, the more it found its legs, particularly as the diverse visual styles grew closer into something that felt like a style all its own, and the filmmakers relied more on the compelling, unsettling aura than on anything that can be found in the pages of a script.

By the time the film reached its provocative, totally original conclusion (no spoilers here—go and see this movie once it finds a distributor), I was fully prepared to forgive it all its flaws, as it had accomplished exactly what Holland and Mitton set out to do: create a piece of art that you can’t quite shake off, whose taste lingers in your mouth.  YellowBrickRoad is not some flawless masterwork, but a collection of indelible moments that the viewer can hold onto after the movie is over, and glance at, sidelong, with a mixture of curiosity and terror.  Indeed, I’ve found my thoughts drifting towards the movie since I watched it, seeking to recapture that precise feeling that I felt during its viewing.  As a debut effort, YellowBrickRoad shows immense promise, and with any luck, it will get picked up, and Holland and Mitton will perhaps be given the chance (and the cash) to create another film at least as powerful as this one.

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~ by toren on April 21, 2010.

2 Responses to “Film Review – “YellowBrickRoad””

  1. I just wanna know if Yellowbrickroad is based on a true story. If so great movie, if not , they could have done better.

    • the plot’s premise derives from local legend. but i think the surrealistic nature of the film’s latter half shows it clearly could not be based on fact……i don’t think you should let whether it’s “real” or not determine your enjoyment of the film, though.

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