Mike P. Nelson’s Wrong Turn, a hard reboot of the 2003 horror film of the same name (which in turn spawned numerous direct-to-video sequels), is (at least initially) so knowingly a “teen scream” slasher that it borders on parody.
A group of late-twenty-somethings hiking the Appalachian Trail find themselves lost somewhere in Virginia and set upon by something lurking in the woods. Almost instantly, the film starts teetering on the “city/country axis” like it’s a gymnast on a balance beam. The rural Virginia folk turn their noses at these “yuppie” millennial travelers, with one confronting them about how they likely never worked a day in their lives (actually, our protagonist has a double master’s degree in art history and dance, so she is a gainfully employed barista).
When our clan of hikers find themselves stranded, one of the first things that strikes fear into their hearts is the inexplicable disappearance of their cell phones. Without this precious tool (“No phone, no GPS!”), they are all but helpless to defend themselves against the crude makeshift traps set for them among the trees. When they come across the people who are terrorizing them, the travelers make sure to distinguish themselves as civilized and their pursuers as animalistic. This is all well-trod territory in the horror genre.
I must admit to never seeing the 2003 Wrong Turn, so I cannot speak to its level of self-awareness (it is a slasher film coming decades removed from the subgenre’s inception, so a certain degree of tongue-in-cheekness would not be outside the realm of possibility). But this reboot is scripted by the original film’s writer, Alan McElroy. So either Wrong Turn 2021 is a mildly intriguing deconstruction of a genre (which has been deconstructed and reconstructed only to be deconstructed again) or it is another rehash of the same old tropes. At times it can be hard to tell.
At face value, Wrong Turn does not offer much. The camera shakily captures our characters in closeup, rendering a rather tiresome “verite” experience. The sudden onset of various traps yields some momentary excitement. But overall, the more earnest this film proves to be the less engaging it is.
Which is not to say the emotional distance of self-reflexivity is substantially better in the case of this film. At this point, the bone of the slasher film has been picked clean of tropes and cliches worth exploring from an analytical remove. There appears to be a certain level of cleverness or wit required to make the self-aware horror thing work these days. Grim-dark torture horror that nevertheless turns a winking eye at the framework of “civilized” versus “uncivilized” is not a combination that jells for me. Not here, anyway. There is a subversion to this city/country idea, one which unfolds in a “court” sequence that is by far the most fascinating portion of the film. But it is a minor portion.
Another portion concerns one hiker’s father (Matthew Modine), who travels to Virginia six weeks after her daughter (Charlotte Vega) leaves on her hiking trip in search of her. It begins as something of a frame narrative, but he returns sporadically across the film in a B-plot that could have been an interesting angle had it been adequately explored.
The entire film, truly, could have been more interesting had it struck a different tone and pace. At one hour and 50 minutes, the film is far too lumpy and long. The first 40 minutes or so are a slog, as the establishment of these characters and their trials and tribulations through the woods are more boilerplate and disengaging than the film’s second half. Had we arrived at the tribal court scene quicker and spent more time developing this facet of the plot, the issues with tone vis-a-vis generic deconstruction would also perhaps have been eased somewhat. The script seems to revel in subverting horror conventions in the court sequence, but it arrives too late in the film to really grapple with what purpose this subversion serves.
In the end, Wrong Turn does satisfy an itch for the horror fan looking for a true blue, gritty slasher that knows all too well the sandbox that it is playing in. And it is the rare film with a third act that is stronger than its first act. But the film shows more promise than what it ultimately delivers.
Wrong Turn: C+
Years ago, I would occasionally tag on an aside at the end of reviews and call it “The Post Script,” which gave an opportunity to break the pedantic facade of the “critic voice” used in the main review. I figured it made sense to bring it back here.
After writing the review, I sought out Wrong Turn (2003). Now is as good a chance as any to revisit some early-2000s horror (nothing beats some Breaking Benjamin in the end credits…). The film certainly reads as a standard slasher that wears its influences on its sleeve with a degree of self-awareness. But there is nothing deconstuctionist about it. It could easily be described as Texas Chainsaw by way of Deliverance. Wrong Turn (2021) and Wrong Turn (2003) are pretty night and day when it comes to how they converse with genre and tone. If you can only pick one, I would say give the 2021 revision a shot over the 2003 original—it has a little more on its mind. Then again, harmless, brainless slasher has its place, too…
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)