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MOVIE REVIEW

They’re off to solve a mystery in slow-paced horror film

By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / June 10, 2011

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About 70 years ago, residents of a small, fictional town left their homes and wandered into the northern New Hampshire woods. You guessed it: never to be heard from again.

Decades pass. Previously classified documents are declassified (we’re not sure why), leading eager writer Teddy, played by Walpole native Michael Laurino, along with his wife (Anessa Ramsey of “The Signal’’), to assemble a team of researchers — various outdoorsy types, a behavioral psychologist, and even an intern — to investigate what happened.

Of course, the townies won’t talk. The sole helpful one, a popcorn-slinger at the local cinema, begs to join the party. She leads the gang to a trailhead ominously marked by a rock chiseled with “yellowbrickroad.’’ Aha. They’re off to see the wizard.

This methodically paced horror show doesn’t rely on gore or spooky nighttime-woods “gotcha!’’ gags. Nearly the entire film takes place in the daytime, and the first dead body doesn’t appear until minute 45. Unexplained phenomena, like 1940s jazz music floating on the midsummer wind, begin to drive the hikers mad (and possibly the audience as well). While every no-budget horror movie since “The Blair Witch Project’’ seems to integrate character-shot video footage — this one included — the filmmakers also toss black-and-white stills into the mix, a clever way to increase the heebie-jeebies.

The eight-member ensemble cast — including Cassidy Freeman, of TV’s “Smallville,’’ a Middlebury prof, and other alumni — puts in solid performances. The dialogue has its moments; in a “Jaws’’ allusion, the scientist utters, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.’’ Yet despite us tagging along the trail for days, we feel closer to the landscape than to the characters. Plus, why do their backpacks remain off-the-rack pristine? Perhaps the gear was on loan from REI.

“YellowBrickRoad’’ is an effective, “Survivor’’-like mood piece. Newbie writer-director team and Middlebury College grads Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton should be applauded for their restraint. But their subtle touch is nearly obliterated by an M. Night Shyamalan-a-ding-dong twist at the end that would elicit groans at a student-film screening. It also shines scant light on all this weirdness in the woods.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.

YELLOWBRICKROAD Directed by: Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton

Starring: Cassidy Freeman, Anessa Ramsey, Michael Laurino

Running time: 98 minutes

Rated: R (some restrained gore and violence)

At: Boston Common (Wednesday at 10 p.m. and Friday at midnight)

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