"Wrong Turn" pivots but doesn't quite Make Franchise Great Again

Wrong Turn (2021)

Let's be clear: a reboot of Rob Schmidt’s 2003 inbred-hillbilly horror thriller “Wrong Turn” was not on any cinephile's do-not-touch list, and yet, here we are. That Eliza Dushku-starrer itself was a nastily fun little “Deliverance”/“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” mash-up. It somehow launched an indie franchise that kept trucking along and jumping the shark into DVD bargain bins at Target, so one was open to a fresh take. Despite director Mike P. Nelson (2018’s “The Domestics”) and returning original screenwriter Alan McElroy taking great pains to subvert the formula with their in-name-only reinvention, 2021’s “Wrong Turn” makes you miss those deformed, cannibalistic West Virginia mountain men from the early aughts. 

Six weeks before her father Scott (Matthew Modine) goes looking for her, Jen Shaw (Charlotte Vega) takes a hiking trip on the Appalachian trail with her group of young working professionals. Among them are Jen’s boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley), oncologist friend Milla (Emma Dumont) and Milla’s brash fiancée Adam (Dylan McTee), and bistro-owning gay couple Luis (Adrian Favela) and Gary (Vardaan Arora). They’re not exactly welcomed with open arms in the town of Wrenwood, Virginia, where “keep to the marked trail,” is the foreboding advice given by the local innkeeper. When Darius decides for all of them to veer off the path and see a Civil War fort—because these kids seem to be interested in that sort of thing—the group runs afoul of a booby-trapped log rolling down the hill. Who’s doing this? Why, that would be “The Foundation,” a primitive, self-sustaining colony of those living off the land who might as well post “Make Virginia Great Again” signs in the ground.

2021’s “Wrong Turn” is faced with a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation: follow the similar beats of its predecessor and fans will call rehash, or deviate from the familiar and fans will feel alienated with a bait-and-switch. Even though in-the-know horror buffs think they will know what trail this new “Wrong Turn” is headed down, director Mike P. Nelson and writer Alan McElroy admirably take a bold swing. Following an admittedly harrowing brush with death—or in one character’s case, actual skull-crushing death—where the viewer can feel the characters getting the wind knocked out of them, the script introduces a moral dilemma to cause in-fighting and the ultimate choice that the youthful survivors must make. Socio-politics, colonization, and groupthink become more of a focus than straight-up slaughter. There’s no doubt whom we’re meant to root for, but an interesting nugget is there: as deluded as they might be, the Foundation members aren’t terribly unreasonable for just protecting their land from trespassers. In theory—and in a movie not named “Wrong Turn”—this is a promisingly thoughtful idea, but in execution, the switch is jarring and more hokey somehow.

Beyond the obligatory record scratch/“you aren’t from around these parts” friction between city slickers and small-town folk, there’s really no time for much character development when you’re just trying to stay alive in the woods. Luckily, Jen and her friends are a likable-enough lot (save for the obnoxious Adam), even if most of them remain types with names and job titles. Jen is the film’s protagonist and the closest to a well-rounded character with a fully formed arc, though her transformation into Katniss Everdeen seems a tad hasty. Giving Jen a backbone and resourceful skills, Charlotte Vega (while looking more and more like Brie Larson as the film goes on) is a strong center and called upon to pull off the most physical and emotional demands. Matthew Modine is also committed as Jen’s father, and Bill Sage is chilling as perfectly bearded Foundation leader John Venable.

For almost all of two hours, a wilderness slasher-turned-barbaric dark-ages survival rescue thriller, titled “Wrong Turn” solely for a familiar property, probably isn’t what fans of the franchise (or just the first film) had in mind. The basic young-things-being-hunted-in-the-woods scenario and a cute line involving a movie about “inbred cannibals” are about the only strands of connective tissue. The gore-starved set—you know who you are—can feel robbed, as the attitude of the kills is deadly serious and not in the name of fun, although the aftermath of a rolling log destroying one of the hikers is plenty gnarly, as is the brutal crushing of a guilty party. Best of all is when the film goes back to civilization with a gory, heightened gotcha and then ends on a long take with a breathy cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” performed by Matthew Modine’s daughter Ruby Modine. Without the name value of “Wrong Turn,” would this be more embraced? It might not be the movie we thought we were getting, but not even a different turn is enough to justify this reboot’s existence. 

Grade: C

Saban Films is releasing “Wrong Turn” (110 min.) for one night only in select theaters through Fathom Events on January 26, 2021.