It seems like we’re entering a boom period for somewhat lazily-named horror revivals. Shortly after news that the latest installment of the Scream series would be called, erm, "Scream," along comes another franchise chapter that can’t even be bothered to add a number to its title. Hitting cinemas (if only for a day) later this month, the 2021 Wrong Turn is, of course, yet another follow-up to the same-named modest hit that gave Buffy graduate Eliza Dushku her first major starring role.
The original 2003 Wrong Turn has undoubtedly been tarnished by the five (yes, five!) direct-to-DVD installments that followed in its grisly path. While the most inessential scary franchise of the 21st century quickly succumbed to the law of diminishing returns, though, its first entry remains a taut, effective detour worth taking.
Having previously brought Michael Myers back from the dead in the underrated fourth Halloween, screenwriter Alan B. McElroy knew all about delivering a lean, mean slasher. He once again cuts to the bone here, offing the first two anonymous rock-climbing victims in the cold open before efficiently dispatching its main cast of photogenic 20-somethings across a no-frills 84 minutes.
Preparing to trek across the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, the film's initial party of five consists of horndog stoners Francine (Lindy Booth) and Evan (Kevin Zegers), loved-up couple Scott (Jeremy Sisto) and Carly (Emmanuelle Chriqui), and plucky singleton Jessie (Eliza Dushku). However, it's only after Chris (Desmond Harrington), a medical student taking a shortcut to escape a traffic jam, crashes into their stationary SUV that they learn they've inadvertently wandered into an inbred family's own personal killing field.
Sure, Wrong Turn ticks off several clichés in the hillbilly horror handbook. There's a gap-toothed gas station attendant who fails to warn the unsuspecting out-of-towner that the area is riddled with mutant country bumpkins. There's the decrepit backwoods home filled with jars of human teeth and creepy doll heads. Given their fondness for sex and weed, it's blatantly obvious which of the six will be brutally murdered first, too.
Yet director Rob Schmidt, whose only previous credit was 2000 revenge thriller Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, still manages to crank up the tension in between all the well-worn beats. See when Francine's garroted corpse starts dripping blood into the path of under-the-bed Chris and Jessie, for example. Or when Scott tries to outrun the monsters in the forest, only to be arrowed in the chest, just an agonizing few yards from safety.
His most impressive set-piece, though, arrives when the three remaining survivors leap from a burning watchtower into the forestry below. You wouldn't expect a video nasty throwback to take inspiration from an Oscar-winning wuxia epic. But there are definite shades of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's most breathtaking fight scene as Chris and Jessie outfox the cannibals while precariously balancing on some treetops.
The handheld camerawork also lends a grittiness sorely lacking from the year's other big cannibal tales, the over-polished remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Abercrombie & Fitch-esque sequel to Jeepers Creepers. In fact, Wrong Turn has far more in common with the backwoods exploitation films of the '70s, something Scott alludes to during a rare concession to the meta post-Scream era. "And I have to remind you of a little movie called Deliverance," he wryly replies after his girlfriend decides to use that not-at-all-creepy rundown shack in the middle of nowhere as a toilet stop.
Inevitably, Carly and the rest of the group soon regret their trespassing when three hideously deformed mountain men come home to feast on a familiar victim. Schmidt wisely avoids capturing these monstrosities in close-up, and instead provides just the odd glimpse of their freakish figures, designed by, believe it or not, Oscar-winning make-up artist Stan Winston (Jurassic Park, Edward Scissorhands). We don't need to see every misshapen limb or twisted facial feature in graphic detail to recognize that these are truly grotesque beings.
Somehow blessed with archery skills that would put Robin Hood to shame, Three Finger, Saw Tooth, and One Eye (character names obviously aren't McElroy’s forte) don't get a backstory, either. Well, not until all three return for the two unnecessary prequels, anyway. Wrong Turn never tries to humanize them, and with grunting their preferred method of communication, it's never even made clear how they're related. Their only purpose is to hunt down prey while wildly flapping their arms and laughing maniacally like hyenas. And that's what makes them all the more terrifying.
The mutants' targets, however, fail to leave as much of an impression. Sisto displays some of the easygoing charm that later made Suburgatory such an engaging watch. Yet despite her Final Girl standing, Dushku gets little opportunity to draw on the ass-kicking skills she first showcased as Sunnydale's most fickle vampire slayer. Meanwhile, bland everyman Harrington's facial expressions stay the same whether he's running late for an interview or impaling a bloodthirsty subhuman in the neck.
At least Schmidt relented on the original plan to make such a bore the only hero of the hour. Yes, Chris does help free a shackled Jessie just moments before she's about to become the maneaters' next meal. But the damsel in distress then gets to swing an ax into Three Finger's skull, a narrative change that Dushku had to fight for with the man who'd direct her again in 2008's true crime horror The Alphabet Killer.
Sadly, as one slow-to-respond cop finds out to his cost in the final shot, that blow doesn't turn out to be fatal, and somehow neither does the fireball that blasts through the inbreds' home. Had Three Finger perished alongside his relatives, then Wrong Turn might have been remembered more fondly. Let's hope that the series' upcoming seventh entry can finally bring something just as satisfying to the table.