Wrong Turn (2021)

This land is their land.

I am pretty sure I saw the original Wrong Turn (2003) back in the day, but I remember almost nothing about it apart from the basic premise and the fact that Eliza Dushku — now and forever Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003) — was in it. I was aware of a sequel or two, and there’s a non-zero chance that I saw one or two of them at some point or another, but if so, the details are even sketchier. That whole hillbilly cannibal clan thing is hard ground to stake a claim in when your neighbors include Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

Still, apparently, someone was paying attention, as the original Wrong Turn series got up to a whopping six installments, ending with 2014’s Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort. Now, after seven fallow years, the whole megillah is being rebooted.

Never go off trail

After a short framing sequence that sees a very haggard-looking Matthew Modine up in hillbilly country meeting blank indifference to his quest to find his missing daughter, the 2021 version of Wrong Turn puts us in instantly familiar territory as we follow six bright young city things on a hiking adventure in the Appalachians. After some initial “you ain’t from around here” clashes with the locals (the presence of character actor Tim DeZarn can’t help but remind us of po-mo horror classic The Cabin in the Woods), Jen Shaw (Charlotte Vega), her African American boyfriend, Darius Clemons (Adain Bradley), gay couple Luis (Adrian Favela) and Gary (Vardaan Arora), whitest of privileged white guys Adam (Dylan McTee), and his girlfriend Milla (Emma Dumont) head off into the woods.

Being savvy viewers and genre fans, we know something horrible is going to befall this sextet, and we’re looking forward to it — as presented, they’re nigh-parodic examples of wealthy inner-city woke privilege, and my working-class palms were itching to see this lot smack bloodily up against the cruel horrors lurking in the woods, which they do in fairly short order, beginning with a rolling log trap that crushes one character in a satisfyingly gory manner. From there, things proceed in the prescribed fashion, with a gradually rising body count as our protagonists (heroes is not the word here) run afoul not of backwoods cannibals, but The Foundation, a primitive, self-sufficient enclave who cut themselves off from the world back in 1859 when the saber-rattling prelude to the U.S. Civil War inspired them to carve out their own path.

Wrong choice!

Up until this point, Wrong Turn ticks along satisfactorily, but this new wrinkle raises some interesting questions. The Foundation, led by beardy lumberjack daddy Venable (Bill Sage), are acting out of what they see as self-defense and subjecting our kids to the laws they themselves have lived by for over a century. Our protagonists’ ideas about community, sustainability, inclusivity, and so on are measured against a particularly primal but nonetheless functional example: The Foundation is, according to its members, egalitarian, multi-racial (although the aesthetic is very Scandi-primitive, owing no small debt to Ari Aster’s Midsommar), communitarian, ecologically sound — everything our hipster clique claims to revere.

But screenwriter Alan McElroy, who also gave us the original Wrong Turn, seeds in some ideas about patriarchal power that muddy the waters further, with The Foundation in dire need of fresh breeding stock to replenish their obviously limited gene pool. It’s hard to say if the themes underpinning Wrong Turn are complex or simply contradictory, but it’s certainly striving for more than your run of the mill stalk ‘n’ kill thriller.

… taking a different turn.

But if all you’re after is an enjoyable string of bloody deaths, Wrong Turn delivers in spades (and there’s nothing wrong with that — we can ramble on about theme and subtext as much as we like, but the real appeal of horror is much more base). Director Mike P. Nelson, The Domestics (2018), is a dab hand at mounting effectively suspenseful set pieces, and the film doesn’t shy away from gore. And while the animal skull masks that the Foundations’ hunters wear raise some questions about practicality and peripheral vision, the sight of them looming silently out of the trees is certainly chilling.

Ultimately, this is a solid offering for genre fans. Wrong Turn could use some judicious editing to get it down to a tight 100 minutes (especially in the denouement, which is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is), and it will remind many viewers of other, better films — to those already mentioned add M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004), John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), and Walter Hill’s criminally underseen Southern Comfort (1981) — but it’s a solid time killer nonetheless.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Wrong Turn is released through Rialto Distribution