Killtoberfest 2 – #15: Yellowbrickroad / The Poughkeepsie Tapes

In All, Movies by Kyu

Tonight on Killtoberfest 2: Kill Me Twice, Shame On Me, a couple of movies about filmmakers. One of them is found footage (complete with dramatic re-enactment of the finding of the footage), making it clearly superior.


But we’ll start with the other one, because this is going to be short and sour: the 2010 indie, Yellowbrickroad (allonewordlikethis).

I respect the hell out of cheap movies, I really do. It’s very hard to drum up interest and drama out of nothing but actors and one location and invisible stuff, and this is doubly true in horror, where if you can’t even afford some monster make-up and a fog machine you’ve really gotta be hurting for budget. So I’ll give Yellowbrickroad this much: it looks like it costs 50 bucks but it doesn’t look like it costs 50 bucks, if you get me. That’s just enough money to gas up the minivan and drive 6 actors out to the grassy field where they’ll spend the rest of the movie crying and screaming over nothing, nothing, music, and more nothing. It’s the kind of movie where, because you can’t afford to make anything look scary, you have to write into the script bits where the characters tell you what’s scary. “See these berries? These are bad berries! Bad!” Then when later they (spoiler) eat (alert) the berries, you’re horrified. (I’ll bet they found the berries when they got to the field and it was a last-minute rewrite.)

This is not a good movie, thanks especially to bad cinematography, laughable special effects (if you can’t effectively execute a dismemberment, just go with something easier, jeez) and mediocre to bad acting. But there’s a fundamental issue with it that goes to something interesting, so if you’ll temporarily overrule the objection, your Honor, I’ll establish relevance quickly.

So, Yellowbrickroad starts with a pretty good premise and the best part of the movie, a credits montage combining audio with still images. The montage details an event in 1940 in the small town of Friar, New Hampshire, where most of the town, several hundred people, simply got up and followed a path into the woods, never to be seen again. (Except for one survivor, who was insane.) So far, so good. The movie is about a team of amateur documentarians who decide that they’re going to go to this small town, walk the path themselves, and film the results, thereby solving the mystery of the mass disappearance. Neato.

Everything goes downhill (for them and the movie) as soon as they’re on the path. The path itself is not visually interesting (sadly, there are no bricks, yellow or otherwise), although there’s some neat sound design going on (loud, atonal sounds, old-timey music blaring with no visible source, etc). The characters are thin at best. And after the halfway mark, the story devolves into… well, if this path were an SCP item it would be described as “thing what makes you go crazy,” a phrase used to dismiss that effect as a hoary cliche. If it were just overused, that would be one thing; but a movie about everyone going crazy is actually astoundingly boring, for the very good reason that nobody’s statements or actions are self-motivated anymore. It’s vaguely depressing to watch a group of people go out of their minds, but it’s certainly not narratively engaging.

The interesting, fundamental issue here is one of perspective. This has cropped up a few times throughout Killtoberfest this year, and here we have a very strange example of broken perspective. There are plenty of excellent films about characters who go crazy, hallucinate, etc, from Jacob’s Ladder to In The Mouth of Madness and going back to the progenitor of cinematic psychological horror, Polanski’s Repulsion. But what they all have in common is that they take place from a subjective point of view. The character is seeing things which are impossible, scary, or contradictory, and as the audience it’s our job to puzzle through and figure out what’s happening, what’s real and what isn’t. Because the character is doing the same thing, these stories are engaging and relatable, because you’re essentially reacting to the same things in the same way.

In Yellowbrickroad, though, the perspective is always objective. Either we’re seeing actual video footage from their documentary, or we’re watching the characters from the outside as they react to things we can’t see or hear, or to their own internal illogic. Likewise, there’s no POV character here who, mostly sane, could give us an observing perspective on everybody else’s descent into madness. So outside of a few more subjective moments (the ending is kinda neat), Yellowbrickroad gives us as the audience the only seat in the house where we can’t feel the action. It’s just people doing things for no reason. It’s boring. Don’t watch it.


On to “happier” things: the excellent, horrifying psuedodoc, The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007).

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I’ve watched this film 3 out of the last 4 Octobers (but not last year’s Killtoberfest), and I have to say it’s become one of my favorite recent horror films. It’s rough and unpolished, but quietly relentless in its quest to unnerve and horrify you. And it works because, unlike Yellowbrickroad, it understands the value of perspective.

I mentioned in my Pitch Black review that one of the best ways to make a larger-than-life character is to keep them off-screen while everybody else in the movie talks about them. That’s the strategy TPT runs with, and it’s very effective at building our image of the brutal, sadistic killer stalking the streets of this New York town. In many ways, the film is designed such that (ironically) it aggrandizes and mythologizes the killer in exactly the way he’s tried to do. (The movie’s ending riffs off this possibility, justifying an attempt at scaring the viewer that, charmingly, calls back to the gimmicks of William Castle.) This raises the same kinds of issues (our fascination with and celebrification of serial killers, the sensationalism of media, the valuation of the public’s right to know over the privacy of victims and their families, etc) that a real documentary about a real killer would. That’s part of what makes TPT so fascinating: it’s a very overt, shocking, torture-porn kind of horror wrapped in a very classy, understated perspective.

The story’s timeline is kept deliberately vague, as if you’re already vaguely aware of the case. The narrative centers around a set of hundreds of VHS tapes filmed by a very smart, prolific serial killer. Half of the movie is a series of talking heads interviews with people involved in the case: FBI agents, criminologists, pathologists, victim’s family members, a profiler who uses the killer as a case study in his classes… My favorite is probably the poor low-level agent who had to watch and log every single tape: “There are probably hours and hours of these tapes that nobody’s watched except me. Like, for example, there’s over 100 hours of weird balloon stuff on these tapes.” The other half of the movie are selections from these tapes, filmed by the killer himself using the shittiest handheld camcorder I’ve ever seen. I’m not complaining, either–the image quality is bizarre in a way that’s very unsettling. The image seems to roll in wavy lines, especially distorting any patterns or straight lines in the background; the colors are mostly black and white, but will sometimes fade up into greenscale and then right back down again. (Once in a while instead of greenscale it’ll swim into full, natural color, and then go right back to gray.) Despite his long career and penchant for documenting his work, the killer never bothers to get a better camera.

Anyway, these tapes are the central focal point of the horror, and they run the gamut from footage of abductions and murders to… okay, that’s the whole gamut, but there are a lot of clever variations. And once the movie has you knowing his pattern, you start anticipating his actions, which lets the film draw out long, tense segments in which you know violence is imminent but hasn’t quite arrived yet. (One sequence, for instance, involves a couple of girl scouts selling cookies door to door. He invites them into his living room, gets them juice, asks them questions to find out if any parents know where they are… and all the while we’re waiting in agony for the other shoe to drop.) The killer is never visible in any of these tapes, but his voice is there often, cajoling his intended victims, playing with them, or screaming at them in rage. Most of the performances in the movie aren’t that great, but in a way that adds to the film’s sense of verisimilitude, as if they’re awkward in the presence of documentary cameras. The killer is no different; you might think that he’s being too over the top, too overtly creepy, too self-aware–but of course he is, he’s filming all of this. He’s performing, and God only knows what he’s like when the cameras are off. How do any of us behave when not observed, when not actively or subconsciously trying to perfect our image?

What makes The Poughkeepsie Tapes so scary and so good is that structural dichotomy between the tapes themselves and the talking heads reactions to those tapes. They’re very distinct, even down to the technical execution. The tapes have harsh, exaggerated audio tracks, feature distorted images and shaky handheld; the documentary around them features patient, sedate cinematography, smooth camera movements or static positions (lots of axial cutting in for close-ups during interviews), and the kind of half-creepy, half-sad music found in cheapo true crime docs. These differences are the foundation and expression of the differences in perspective: the killer rages violently and we (society, experts, the audience) are quietly fascinated and horrified. This pattern repeats itself for the duration of the film, running roughly over the course of the killer’s career as he gets more and more extreme and the investigation continues. Over time the film hammers away at a theme as old as Lovecraft (or Lot): there are some things we simply should not see. The filmmakers do everything they can to make you feel that, and near the end we have one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie–a scene that contains no blood and no violence. This is a movie that pulls no punches, but which knows how much more painful and terrifying a beating is if each punch is painstakingly explained to you before and after it hits you.

There are only a handful of truly scary movies out there, films which fill you with the kind of horror and fear that lasts long after the credits have rolled. The Ring is one of these; The Blair Witch Project; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; a small number of others. Add to that list The Poughkeepsie Tapes.

I don’t normally do this, but below you’ll find both the trailer for the film and then the entire movie on Youtube. I only post that because the film is literally unavailable in any market, online or off. Despite a marketing campaign, the film’s theatrical release in 2007 was canceled, and it was never released on home video. In July of this year it was released VOD–and then pulled again! It’s a shame, because this is an excellent, chilling, innovative horror film that deserves to be seen and discussed.


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