With this latest installment of “Wrong Turn,” I come into this long-running franchise a complete virgin. I have not seen the original which came out in 2003 and stars Eliza Dushku and Jeremy Sisto, nor have I viewed the sequels, several of which went straight to video. As a result, this puts me at an advantage as I won’t be comparing this one to its predecessors. Instead, I may be comparing to so many other horror and slasher flicks which continue to overcrowd this at times underappreciated genre, and those comparisons are usually inescapable.
This “Wrong Turn,” directed by Mike P. Nelson, is actually a franchise reboot which does not connect to any of the previous films, but instead features a new set of characters who end up taking exactly what the title implies, but while it contains many archetypes and cliches horror movies often have to offer, this one surprised me by giving us characters who were not all they appear to be and grounding its terror in a reality we are all familiar with. Whether or not I had expectations before screening this film, I certainly was not expecting this as filmmakers often go for the jugular, but these ones have more on their mind than a few jump scares.
“Wrong Turn” starts off with Scott Shaw (the always reliable Matthew Modine) driving into a small town in Virginia to search for his missing daughter, Jen (Charlotte Vega), and her boyfriend, Darius (Adain Bradley). It turns out these two were with their college friends on vacation which included hiking the Appalachian Trail. Scott is met with indifference by the town’s sheriff who, when he sees Darius with Jen in a photo, replies, “Who’s the black fella?” Then he goes to the motel where the group stayed, and the manager tells him, “The quieter the town is, the more the sheriff gets to fish.” But of course, he finds the most resistance from a local resident named Nate Roades (Tim DeZarn) who informs him, “Out there, nature eats everything it catches, right down to the bone.” So, the setting has been set, and Scott now looks to be lucky to find any body which can be identified through dental records,
Following this prologue, the film then jumps to six months earlier. Now if there is another horror film which has done this recently, I have not seen it. But anyway, we are introduced to Jen and her friends who are reveling in their time off and taking selfies. From the outset, they look like your average college kids who have yet to graduate and have the whole world ahead of them and, of course, they think they are invincible. Then we see them in a bar where they are berated by Nate who believes they have yet to work a real job in their lives. It is then that Jen says the following:
“Your wrong. My boyfriend Darius runs a sustainable energy non-profit, Mila is an oncologist, Adam is in app development, and Gary and Louis are a couple of New York bistros. I don’t know but I call those real jobs.”
In this moment, Jen helps to render herself and her friends as more than your average horror movie characters as they prove to be more intelligent than I could have given them credit for upon first sight. There is even an LGBT couple here in Gary and Louis, and I would like to think this is more of a regular thing than I have seen in this genre. With movies like this, “Love, Simon” and “Booksmart,” I am led to believe audiences in general are largely comfortable with LGBT characters just as they always should have been. As for those who still have complaints about these people, take a good long look in the mirror. That’s where you will see what the real problem is.
But as expected, these young adults do indeed take a wrong turn and end up in the clutches of a group of people who have lived in the mountains for countless years, and it is no surprise to discover how indifferent they are to strangers or outsiders. From there, “Wrong Turn” becomes a picture which delves into the divisions which separate people from one another, and it is these same divisions which have pulled us apart over the past four years. This makes the tension all the more palpable as we have long since realized we have long lived in a country which is not as united as we would like to believe.
Now some horror films are content to follow familiar conventions as the filmmakers and studios feel the fans want them more than anything else. Perhaps they do, but I really liked how “Wrong Turn” went out of its way to challenge those conventions as it provides us with characters and scenarios which feel very close to real life than many would anticipate. This is not a motion picture in which we wait and root for these characters’ demise, but one in which we fear it because we know it will be painful and not the least bit pretty. Just look at one character who gets his smashed by a large tree. Now that’s a sight which will not leave my mind for a very long time.
The screenwriter for this reboot, Alan B. McElroy, also wrote the screenplay for the 2003 original “Wrong Turn” as well as the one for “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.” This is a writer who has worked in the horror genre for quite some time and knows how to revive a franchise which finds itself running on fumes. Like I said, I have not seen the original, but I have read it dealt with cannibalistic inbred mountain men. With this reboot, McElroy has made the antagonists much more earthbound and this makes the horror all the more impactful. They even have their own court system, and it is one which deals out very definitive punishments and has no use for appeals. Whether or not there is inbreeding is another story, but they prove to be as human as us even as they waste to trespassers. Survival can be such a brutal thing.
My hat also goes off to the cast of young actors which include Charlotte Vega, Adain Bradley, Emma Dumont, Dylan McTee, Vardaan Arora and Adrian Favela who get to do more than portray the average archetypes. Each of them gets to invest deeply in their characters to where they can be seen as multi-dimensional, and this continues throughout the film even as it ventures into familiar genre territory. And yes, it is always nice to have Matthew Modine around as he gives the proceedings of any movie he appears an integrity it might not always have.
“Wrong Turn” is not a great movie, and while it does try some fresh things with its well-trodden story, it’s not quite as scary as it wants to be. And yes, I did find myself rolling my eyes when the young adults did go off the trail as they were just asking for trouble like many characters ask for this in the average slasher film, Still, I was very much taken in by this reboot which held my attention throughout all the way to its unnerving ending which involves a haunting version of the song “This Land Is Your Land” which I was convinced was sung by Nana Vernon (it was actually sung by Ruby Modine).
I do have one major criticism though, and it’s how these characters lose their cell phones while sleeping one evening. No one loses their cell phone this easily, ever. We all live in a time where we can no longer imagine living without our mobile devices, and if I ever lose mine, I go ballistic. You don’t even want to be around me when this happens. Calm me down all you want, it infuriates me when I don’t know where my cell phone is, and I expected the characters to be as angry as me when they lost theirs.
Anyway, I at least have to forgive the filmmakers for using the old cliché of how cell phones don’t get reception in the wilderness. That still makes a significant amount of sense.
* * * out of * * * *
“Wrong Turn” is now available to watch On Demand, Digital, Blu-ray and DVD.