Written by: Alan B. McElroy
Directed by: Mike P. Nelson
Starring: Charlotte Vega, Adain Bradley, and Bill Sage
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
This land is their land.
No matter how popular or reliable a franchise might be, none of them can escape the doldrums of repetition. By the time the entries creep up to around five or so, it’s almost inevitable that filmmakers will begin resorting to various gimmicks, whether it’s bizarre story choices or an outright restart. It’s happened to the best of our slasher icons, from Michael Myers (who got a weirdo pagan cult backstory before enduring a series of reboots) to Jason Voorhees (who died, inspired a copycat, and returned from the grave for increasingly wild adventures). Wrong Turn is a relative newcomer but has been with us for nearly two decades now, producing five sequels of varying quality, each of them with just enough of a wrinkle to distinguish themselves. But still, the mantra with these films has been very much in the spirit of those earlier franchises, which sought to peddle familiar, gore-drenched wares to the masses, who eagerly consumed them in the same way you’ll often eat a Whopper instead of filet mignon. Sometimes, it’s just what you want, and Fox eagerly dished out these sequels.
Sometimes, though, you have to be an adult—or maybe an adult has to step in—and insist that you can’t just keep stuffing your face with the same old junk. Sometimes, you need all new junk to challenge yourself. Enter original Wrong Turn scribe Alan McElroy (already no stranger to this genre, having penned Halloween 4), who decided this series needed a new direction for its seventh outing. There’s only so many times you can have unsuspecting folks run afoul of inbred mountain people before the routine grows stale, so he crafted a true reimagining of the premise: outside of the title and the general location, this Wrong Turn isn’t a close kin to its slasher cousin. While it still eagerly delivers some splatter movie theatrics, it has higher ambitions in its quest to probe human nature and challenge the assumptions we might have of the backwoods dwellers lurking among us. What if they’re not all inbred cannibals, you know?
Fret not, though: the aimless twentysomethings of this movie still encounter something horrific while hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Jen Shaw (Charlotte Vega) and her boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley) are trying to find themselves during a post-collegiate malaise, so they’ve embarked on a road trip with a couple of friends that goes horribly awry when they arrive in a small Virginia town, where the locals at the Beer & Deer tavern bristle at these big city folk. Their cagey innkeeper’s wayward glances at the same-sex couple is even less endearing, so you can hardly blame the kids when they shrug off her cryptic warning to stick to the trail.
During their hike, they predictably do wander off in search of a Civil War monument, only to discover they aren’t alone when they stumble onto a different type of monument: The Foundation, an insular community descended from a group of citizens who fled into the woods in the years before the War Between the States. Sending the collapse of America, The Foundation pledged to establish a pure society, one that preaches self-sufficiency and equality among all races, colors, and creeds. It just so happens that their descendants still wear skull masks, speak in tongues, and lay traps for wildlife. When Jen and her friends encounter them, they’re convinced they’ve stumbled upon some pagan death cult. A confrontation between the two groups ends with members of both sides dead and, and The Foundation seeks retribution by taking the survivors hostage and putting them on trial in their own warped justice system.
Wrong Turn toys with the audience’s expectations by initially going through the expected motions and serving up the backwoods carnage synonymous with the franchise. Nearly everything about the first 30 minutes or so would have felt right at home in a conventional Wrong Turn sequel. You still have your kids, their wrong turning, and a menace waiting in the woods. When one of them winds up with a grotesquely crushed skull, it’s easy to assume that maybe McElroy and director Mike P. Nelson haven’t strayed too far from the path after all. But there are other hints, though, that they have a little more on their minds: when the kids inevitably encounter those confrontational rednecks in town, it touches off a typical Red State/Blue State dialogue, effectively poking open the door for the bait-and-switch that occurs when we discover The Foundation aren’t the franchise’s signature mutants, who have become more like cartoon mascots with each new installment.
It’s at this point Wrong Turn properly diverges, trading in the expected stalk-and-slash routine for a harrowing suspense story with a moral dimension. When they’re brought before a tribunal, the surviving friends answer to Venable (Bill Sage), an enigmatic judge, jury, and executioner who passes judgment for their trespassing. The Foundation protest their own innocence in the affair by claiming they were actually going to help the kids return to town; the kids, of course, point to the skulls, the traps, and their foreign language as evidence that they were being kidnapped, setting up the old Cannibal Holocaust chestnut that leads us to wonder who the real savages are.
And in case you don’t get there on your own, the script has Venable monologue about it: he points out that they’ve been a peaceful community, one where there’s no class structure or personal ownership. Nobody wants for anything because everyone works for each other. “Is this barbaric?” he asks, right before bashing the condemned kid’s skull to a bloody pulp, effectively undercutting any subversion. It turns out that, yes, The Foundation is barbaric: they might not be mutant rednecks, but they’re holding scores of hostages and only allow captives their “freedom” if they “choose” to join their society. When Jen and Darius make this choice, Wrong Turn becomes a different kind of movie altogether as the girl’s father (Matthew Modine) grabs the protagonist baton when he comes in search of his missing daughter.
Wrong Turn is nothing if not a departure—you have to give it that much, at least. But in its attempts to be about something, it twists its own tongue with half-baked ideas and mixed messages. It feigns at subversion with The Foundation, an idyllic communal society who wants to uphold the American values they saw fading with the looming Civil War, only to make them bloodthirsty savages after all. While this isn’t quite as egregious as teasing Freddy Krueger’s innocence before walking it back in the Elm Street remake, it’s similarly frustrating because there’s an interesting movie lurking in this possible subversion had the filmmakers seen it all the way through. Instead, they’ve swapped out one stereotype for another in a strained attempt at making an observation about our divisive times, when Americans distrust each other or whatever. Vindicating that distrust makes me wonder why they even bothered.
What’s more, McElroy’s script reserves its true subversion for the cantankerous rednecks, who roll into the third act as saviors. The same beer-swilling blowhards that hid the existence of The Foundation (with whom they have kind of unspoken relationship) from both Jen and her father turn out to be not so bad after all. Somehow, in the year 2021, these are the people Wrong Turn chooses to lionize. It turns out the real trouble comes from the egalitarian society that wanted to avoid the horrors of the Civil War. This is most certainly a choice, and it’s one that feels more guided by provocation than sharp insight: a more subversive, timely movie would have teamed up the Foundation with the college kids (especially since they’re ideologically similar, something the film acknowledges but does little with) and pit them against the ignorant townspeople. It would have read the room better, at any rate.
Then again, I suppose horror isn’t always meant to read the room. Sometimes, it’s supposed to be confrontational and leave a bad taste in your mouth. Wrong Turn achieves that both intentionally and unwittingly: it wants the audience to confront their own prejudices but does little beyond the confrontation, ultimately settling for a half-assed insinuation that everyone is prejudiced in some way but should all work together to combat the true evil lurking among us. Wrong Turn is insistent that it’s saying something, all the way through its belabored fourth act (at 109 minutes, this one wheezes on nearly a half-hour longer than the original), where it really struggles to articulate anything with its wild twists and turns.
Admittedly, this Wrong Turn does briefly roar to life with its absurd second climax, when it seems to abandon all pretense of thoughtfulness and indulges in pure schlock. But in its insistence that it must seem profound, the film can’t get out of its own way and settles on a bizarre coda that unfolds during the credits for whatever reason. A somber, wispy rendition of “This Land is Your Land” accompanies the implied carnage, revealing that this film wants to say something about American barbarism. Wrong Turn is a movie that has a lot on its mind but says very little, and is ironically at its most successful when it’s just fulfilling franchise expectations with gnarly gore and well-crafted suspense.
When a character remarks about watching a another movie about inbred cannibals, it’s supposed to be a sly wink, maybe even a subtle jab the franchise’s stale roots; instead, it’s mostly a reminder that those movies at least knew what they were and didn’t need to drape their shlock in an ill-fitting commentary that doesn’t say much of anything. Is this more ambitious and interesting than a conventional Wrong Turn 7 would have been? Sure. But I’m not convinced it’s ultimately any more memorable or satisfying.
Saban Films will release Wrong Turn On Demand, Digital, Blu-ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.
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