Sunday, 28 April 2013

Horror & American Pessimism

I just watched the film YellowBrickRoad (and yes, the title is written that way). The first few minutes and the last few seconds are very good. The eighty-odd minutes in the middle are mostly tedious, irritating, and probably not worth your effort, dear reader. Let me explain why.

The basic set-up is this:
1940: the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire walked up a winding mountain trail, leaving everything behind. 2008: the first official expedition into the wilderness attempts to solve the mystery of the lost citizens of Friar.
There's more, of course. Some of the townsfolk are killed along the trail and their mutilated bodies discovered later. Most of them simply vanish into the woods (I've no idea how credible this is - my knowledge of American wilderness areas is sadly limited). One survivor returns to be interviewed, but a recording merely shows that he has been maddened by a strange sound. So much for backstory.

The narrative proper begins when an academic goes to some unspecified but distinctly run-down government office and is given a file on the mysterious incident. He receives the hitherto-suppressed material from a rather friendly bureaucrat whose face we never see properly, because he's behind a grubby glass screen. This is Ligottian stuff, and I hoped for more of it. Unfortunately the film rapidly turns into another one of those 'Last Broadcast' rip-offs, in which a disparate group of rather stupid people get lost in the woods, encounter weird stuff, and die one by one, usually in horrible ways.

YellowBrickRoad is firmly in the new-ish genre tradition of making characters humourless, pretentious, largely incompetent, and not very likeable. Or perhaps that's just me? Certainly the group of (mostly) young Americans depicted here are, with one or two exceptions, prize jerks or hopeless drips. For example: the expedition's cameraman interviews each of his fellow travellers; as well as asking their names and so forth, he gives them arty-farty instructions: 'Talk gibberish until I tell you stop', or 'Make a repetitive gesture'. I immediately thought of one gesture that any normal British person would make to such wankery, but the team's acceptance of this pseudo-profound nonsense sets the tone for the movie.

And that's a pity, because the central idea is not too bad. The explorers come to believe that the people of Friar simply left town, risking life and limb, to try and find some fantasy world where they could be happy - hence the film's title. It turns out that The Wizard of Oz was found in the projector at the town's cinema after the disappearance - and the film had been played almost to destruction. As the expeditions makes its way north into the forest, they start to hear noises, which become louder until they are deafeningly painful.

The noises are the soundtracks of saccharine Hollywood musicals of the pre-war years. The menace in the woods is not a conventional monster or evil spirit, but pure escapism - the desperate desire of the townsfolk to escape drudgery and boredom. This has generated some kind of space-time anomaly which stops the team's satnav from working and makes the compass spin. It also makes it impossible for the expedition to retrace its steps back to Friar, or indeed to anywhere.

Needless to say, the group falls apart under the pressure, with only one - the leader - finally making it to the end of the road. Where he finds out, in a way, what happened to the original townsfolk. It is not pleasant, but again has a very Ligottian feel. By this point, however, the average viewer might well feel so frustrated and annoyed that s/he'll have given up and rooted out that old DVD of House of Wax.

YellowBrickRoad is interesting, though, for the sheer, remorseless pessimism that informs almost every scene. Sure, at the beginning the researchers are interested in writing a book about the mystery. But pretty soon they are all spouting cod philosophy and sub-Fortean stuff about the impossibility of knowing what really happened. After the first ten minutes or so you realise this lot are never going to achieve anything. They are bound to fail horribly.

And that is rather different from the vibe you get from the traditional American horror movie. Yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't exactly upbeat as to plot, but it is joyous in the sheer excess of its bloodshed, mutilation, and general silliness. Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street - they are all jolly good fun, a ride on the ghost train, not remorseless attempts to point up the futility of existence. Even absurd tat like Driller Killer was obviously meant to add colour to the lives of adolescents. Horror movies - almost all movies - reflected the American dream not because everyone survived, obviously, but because the (supposedly) good guy/gal came out on top, maybe a little traumatised but basically okay.

YellowBrickRoad, and some other recent genre movies, deliver the opposite message. Nobody will emerge unscathed from the big adventure, and it's absurd to expect that they will. The American dream is not imperfect, or even illusory, but downright toxic. This is why I kept thinking of Ligotti during the movie, even though the script is nowhere near as subtle or intelligent as his fiction. Pessimism - perhaps even straight-up nihilism - has infected the cultural DNA of America, and is manifesting itself in films like this. It's obviously part of a wider social trend.


Aonghus Fallon said...

Sixty years go by and THEN the authorities decide to investigate?

valdemar said...

Yes, that struck me as a real 'derp' moment. One of many. The relatively low cost of hiring an aircraft to check out the area makes thrashing through the woods seem a tad pointless. The supposed investigators who've spent years looking into the mystery have never been to the town before. Overall, it's a film that thinks it's being very clever, but is deeply stupid in many obvious ways.

Oscar Solis said...

Started to watch it, but I found myself skipping forward. Got to the ending. I wasn't enough to grab me.

I may give it a second chance.

However, I did see "The Awakening". I enjoyed it, even if the twist was nothing new and the end was ambiguous (Possible Spoiler: Is she alive? Is she dead? C'mon filmmakers, how hard is it to definitely make it one or the other?)

valdemar said...

I thought the end of 'The Awakening' was very clear. It hints she may be a ghost, then makes it clear she's not.