2003’s “Wrong Turn” spawned a surprising franchise. Five sequels and this 2021 reboot demonstrate that screenwriter Alan B. McElroy’s premise has (deformed) legs that have continued to provide bloody scares for audiences. After six films in the original continuity, a reboot seems timely and could continue to capitalize on the potential of city people encountering a very different culture in the Appalachian Mountains. McElroy’s return to the franchise as screenwriter might suggest the same stripped down, visceral terror of the original.
Such hope will be met with severe disappointment as Wrong Turn 2021 demonstrates how much less more can be. Whereas the original was a lean mean 86 minutes, this epically stupid film runs out of steam after 25 minutes, and there’s another 80 to go after that which will likely test the patience of even the most devoted horror fan. The problems begin pretty much straight away as Scott (Matthew Modine, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”) searches for his daughter Jen (Charlotte Vega, “American Assassin”), who disappeared while on a hiking trip with her friends. Scott encounters the thoroughly unfriendly Hicksville, USA, with scenes that set off big warning flags for any viewer familiar with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Deliverance” or indeed, “Wrong Turn.” But these tropes are all after the fact, as the film then jumps back to “six weeks earlier,” as we meet Jen and her friends on their trip.
The young people are a decently diverse group. With the resourceful and highly moral Jen at their center, we also have her boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley, “The Bold and the Beautiful” TV series), whose race is the subject of a bigoted comment but no more. There is also engaged couple Milla (Emma Dumont, “Inherent Vice”), the smart medical one, and Adam (Dylan McTee, “The Wind”), the arrogant entitled one. Rounding out the group is Luis (Adrian Favela, “The Try Out”) and Gary (Vardaan Arora), a gay couple of color who also incur an isolated glance of prejudice. These attempts at presenting problematic social attitudes might be effective if more was made of them, but the bigotry appears too cursorily to make an effective display of class prejudice.
This problem applies to the central characters as well as the supporting. The central figures are not annoying so much as obvious and under-served by the script, which makes the subsequent deaths (come on, that’s not a spoiler!) obvious and therefore tedious. The disruption to the narrative chronology is a real problem here — by starting after the principal action we know the young people are going to meet with misfortune so that daddy Scott can come looking for them. Their encounter with the same warnings as Scott — even down to the same harbinger, Nate Roades (Tim DeZarn, who also played the harbinger in “The Cabin in the Woods”!) — feels therefore even more cumbersome than it might have otherwise. Sure enough, when the kids head into the woods, they take a (heavily convoluted) wrong turn and rapidly come to regret that choice.
Wrong Turn utilizes the familiar folk horror premise of urbanites encountering the threat of the rural, the primitive, the untamed. This is a primal fear that has informed a varied range of films from “The Wicker Man” to “The Blair Witch Project” to “The Witch” and the recent “Death of Me.” So pervasive is this fear that it is impressive that director Mike P. Nelson manages to mess everything up so effectively. Multiple whip pans that provide glimpses of the undergrowth where SOMETHING moves out of sight (but quite visibly) provoke fear for about three seconds, yet they keep coming. Some fast handheld footage as our victims run through the forest might be more effective if some semblance of atmosphere had been created. Instead, repeated shots of our carefully muddied heroes standing around while insisting that “We need to get the FUCK off this mountain” (they all speak with that emphasis, which is sort of sweet) means that you’ll find more immersion in the recent charming drama about excavation, “The Dig.”
Furthermore, and most baffling, is the clumsy and contradictory world building that takes the simple premise of being lost and hunted in the woods and expands this into weird, isolated counter-culture bullshit. Grand eloquence and pontificating that would make “The Matrix”’s Architect roll his eyes utterly smothers any visceral terror. Meanwhile, really nice hair ensures that any sense of untamed nature or wildness is dispelled. When you’re noticing that the bad guys appear to have access to decent conditioner, something is going badly wrong. The good looks continue despite the occasional bursts of gore, usually only the aftermath which betrays a lack of conviction in the nastiness. Although several characters die potentially gruesome deaths, there is no sense of pain or suffering, therefore reason to care.
This lack of conviction plagues the film more widely. Suggestions of nihilism and the arbitrary nature of death give way to sentimentality expressed through oh-so-meaningful slo-mo, while the gender politics are uncomfortably patriarchal. One might wonder if there is a satirical comment here about traditional American values, an askance look upon the modern world that would view the potential purity of a pre-industrial society as “barbaric.” Such a reading is especially tempting in the aftermath of the January 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, Wrong Turn highlighting the divisions and dangers in American society. Would that we were so lucky. Any suggestions of social or political commentary go the same way as tension and fear, as the final act wanders and wibbles like a lost child, but without the panic.
Wrong Turn is wrong-headed in every possible way. An overly convoluted plot, incoherent themes, reiterative dialogue, garish visual style and distracting hair add up to a crushingly dull experience. Perhaps the most damning thing about the film is a character mentioning a movie with inbred cannibals, as you wish for more of those. It’s not something you wish for every day, but there was that 2003 film with Eliza Dushku . . .