Directed by Mike P. Nelson
You ever see someone with a Wrong Turn shirt or tattoo? How about even an avatar? Me neither. It’s one of those franchises, like Amityville Horror, Children of the Corn or The Purge, for which I don’t think I’ve ever met a proper fan. I know plenty of people who have watched some of them (generally the first three). But none that actively look forward to them coming out, or pre-order boxsets etc. Yet the films keep on going, now entering their third decade. Which is impressive. Frankly, of all the series I’d have thought would be going twenty years later, Wrong Turn would be towards the bottom of my list. Somewhere beneath both Jeepers Creepers and Hatchet, but above Reeker.
It’s not that the original was bad per se – it was good, dumb fun. And, arguably Joe Lynch’s sequel was even better. Rather, my reasoning is the movies hark back to a time when we’d still see pure, unapologetic slashers. Films set in the woods where obnoxious characters get cut into numerous pieces, then eaten, are a thing of the past. Hence why some of the sequels may have downplayed this element – particularly the surprisingly good sixth. Now, after some time in the wilderness, the franchise has finally matured to the inevitable point in which numbers in the title are ditched. What’s interesting is we don’t get vague menacing words either: ‘revelations’, ‘genesis, ‘retribution’ etc. Rather this reboot goes the way of 2018’s Halloween, advertising itself as simply Wrong Turn. A new entry point for people who can’t be bothered watching six other flicks to find out what’s happening. And with original scribe Alan B. McElroy back for more, along with some limited cinema screenings in the states, it’s hard not to see this as almost being a heritage-conscious release. Something to tide us over until the inevitable reboots of bigger properties. It also marks a clear end to the original continuity, meaning we have an old canon and a new one. If this takes place in the same universe as the others, it does not show it.
At face value, it’s still same-old-same-old though: a formula that ought to please what hardcore fans there are. A group of city-slickers drive to the middle of nowhere to go for a walk in the woods along an Appalachian trail. However, they go off the beaten track to try and find an old civil war fort, despite being warned not to by the unfriendly locals. Bad idea. The characters are pretty much as you’d expect: young, good looking hipsters with no regard for nature, or their own lives. Though plaudits to McElroy for varying the usual tropes to include a gay couple and an interracial couple. None are hugely distinctive, and they’re prone to making very bad decisions. But it’s still decent to see more representation even if it’s among an otherwise indistinct and silly group. There’s also one of them, Jen’s (Vega) dad, Scott (Modine), who in a subplot goes looking for them. Then, of course, we have the villains: our mountain men. But not as you know them. They aren’t the fun, cackling hillbillies with inbreeding induced superstrength, of old. We have no Three Finger, One Eye or Saw Tooth. Rather we have anonymous hunters in camouflage and animal masks, staring ominously and silently. At least for the first half.
And then, for the second, they speak. A lot. In a direction I wasn’t expecting, we meet not just a few oddballs, but a functioning community of them: The Foundation. Feared in the neighbouring area, they live off the land and have something akin to a legal system. Cue some awkward moral relativism that dominates the second act (“you call us barbaric?!” etc). Despite the Midsommar intentions, it’s still the same basic Wrong Turn contrast between cultures at the centre, though it’s been admirably reframed to fit in with the current American culture war. The Foundation represent an older generation in angry retreat from a changing world, as represented by the diverse and socially conscious band of intruders on their land. If this sounds a tad more serious than the other entries, it is – despite occasional satire. It’s an altogether darker film than any of the others, and largely ditches the series iconography save for the makeshift traps. However, in altering the subgenre, the baddies, their backing story, their motivation and the overall tone I’d go as far as saying this movie really shouldn’t retain the Wrong Turn name. Like 2018’s Suspiria, it is such a different beast to what has come before.
On the plus side, some of the changes really pay off. And it’s positive to see a more thoughtful approach to typically thoughtless material. Especially in a seventh outing. The internal politics of The Foundation are pretty interesting, and I really like the air of fear about the local village as they warn Scott and the gang not to stray. Seven movies in, and more atmospheric than before. The stalking scenes are also tense, with good moments where people poke out from behind the trees. But if you’re expecting the signature big kills then you’ll be disappointed. The violence here is rather sanitised and some of it even takes place offscreen. To be fair to Nelson, he establishes a sense of threat early on and Bill Sage is compelling as the head of the Foundation. He conveys a menace that’s far more effective than more gore could be, whilst handling the material with enough nuance you could almost see why he regards himself as one of the good guys. Fear of the other is worked into the plot well, and I congratulate McElroy for coming up with a scenario that gives each side a plausible claim to righteousness. Still, the trial format in the middle means there’s inevitably more telling than showing and it slows the until then promising pace to a halt. The thing is, it’s not fresh or profound enough to be clever and not dumb enough to be mindless fun. Especially after the first act builds the suspense gradually. I know the information needs to be communicated, though I wonder if it could be better integrated with the action. Either that or the protracted build-up followed by the foundation’s intro feels like too much foreplay. And then we come to the climax.
A pointless third act twist does little for the movie, and feels too outlandish for the sort of grittier reality director Nelson seems to be going for. Particularly when, at almost two hours, Wrong Turn is also longer than your average horror. Some cuts could be made without much loss – Scott’s subplot for one. While it adds to the worldbuilding and becomes crucial in the third act, I don’t think having an adult there helps. After all, one rule for post-Halloween slashers is to keep the grownups, and law enforcement, to a minimum unless their surname is Loomis. I suspect the audience will also be film-savvy enough to piece together what state the others will be in a few days later when they know his timeline joins their one. These issues aside, this is far better than you’d reasonably expect a new Wrong Turn film to be and way bolder. I still can’t say I’m actively looking forward to another, but should I see someone in a baseball cap tomorrow I won’t be as surprised.
Wrong Turn is available on VOD from 26th February (Amazon, iTunes, Sky Store, Virgin, Google, BT, etc). There will be a physical release 3rd May 2021 on DVD and Blu-Ray.