Starting in 2003, the Wrong Turn franchise has clocked up a respectable six outings. While it has its fans, for many it has always been seen as something of a guilty pleasure: a series of by-the-numbers backwoods slashers with some gory thrills but little in the way of story or substance. This year, director Mike P. Nelson brings us a reboot, one that promises to take the stale formula in exciting new directions. But does his new spin on Wrong Turn live up to the franchise’s brutal reputation?
Scott (Matthew Modine) is journeying through rural Appalachian towns searching for his missing daughter, Jen. He is generally met with unhelpful officials and hostile locals, but there’s a tenacity to him that tells us that he’s not going to give up. Cut to six weeks earlier and we follow Jen (Charlotte Vega) hiking through the woods with her friends, including her boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley). The group is a pretty crudely sketched mob of multi-ethnic millennials. The ways in which they differ from the locals they encounter are illustrated starkly, whether it’s a disapproving hostel owner frowning at the gay couple holding hands or Jen conceding to a blue collar local that her academic achievements have only led her to a job as a waitress. Pretty soon they are lost in the woods, dodging brutal traps and fighting for their lives.
Where this Wrong Turn violently diverges from the preceding films is in its depiction of the threat the hikers face. Gone are the inbred cannibal hicks in their rusted tow truck. In their place is a cloistered community, clad in animal skins and continuing a secluded way of life that they have preserved since before the days of the civil war.
It’s an understandable direction to take. Folk horror is very “in” right now, and we can barely move in the horror genre for people wearing deer skull masks and carrying flaming torches (this film has both in abundance). The set-up for Wrong Turn, with its antagonists representing the very worst blood-smeared caricatures of poor, rural ‘redneck’ life, also feels a bit outdated in 2021. The new threat allows for a much more nuanced approach to how we understand the film’s hero/villain dichotomy. The hikers may be the easiest to identify with, but Dylan McTee‘s oily Adam is pretty quick to abandon his big city niceties when danger looms, showing an alarming aptitude for casual cruelty and violence.
“The Foundation” community, by contrast, are presented as far more sympathetic. Their way of life is brutal and cruel, but they have an internal logic and a sense of justice that the film shows as being understandable, if not entirely condonable.
For fans of the Wrong Turn franchise’s easy charms, will this nuanced approach be a hit? The crucial thing is that Nelson and original writer Alan B. McElroy have made sure to include plenty of the grisly set pieces to which their audience is accustomed. The kills are inventive and ghastly, with the horrendous aftermath of the first death being particularly memorable, and serving as a mission statement for the rest of the film. The practical effects are realistic and shocking, and fans of blunt force trauma (you know who you are!) will find plenty to enjoy.
Ultimately, it’s these moments of fright that keep things anchored as the filmmakers try to wrangle the increasingly complex plot into shape. By including Scott’s search alongside his daughter’s story, the film ends up feeling long and somewhat overwrought. Narrative curveballs arise, which only serve to make things more difficult to follow. Despite the overall length, the determination to pack as much in as possible means that characters and plotlines are left underdeveloped, and emotional investment in the action suffers as a result. “The Foundation” in particular come across as a shallow amalgam of folk horror motifs, rather than a living, breathing community. Although Bill Sage makes a compelling leader for the backwoods barbarians, it never feels like there is much to discover beyond their “dark age chic” costumes.
All in all, the Wrong Turn remake never quite comes together as a cohesive experience, but it’s certainly not for lack of ambition. In a franchise notorious for playing by the rules, it’s great to see filmmakers stray so far from the beaten track and trust their audience to follow along. The story is a bit messy and overstretches itself to the point that it may struggle to engage its viewers. However, it does bode well for future iterations of Wrong Turn that may follow along this new path. This instalment had too much on its plate to provide interesting lore or strong characters to root for. Nonetheless, it showed enough gumption to make us wonder if future offerings with simpler storylines might end up being right on the money.