As far as this writer’s concerned, Alan B. McElroy’s film series about inbred cannibals ended with Joe Lynch’s deliriously fresh, Survivor-esque romp, Wrong Turn II: Dead End. All four subsequent entries to this notorious franchise failed to capture the right tone as Lynch’s film had without ever falling into needless excesses and self-parodying antics. It had plenty of gore, well-crafted set pieces, and much to say about the putrefaction of reality television. Oh, and it has one of the most off-field bifurcation scenes you’ll ever see.
Released 14 years ago, Dead End was the last time that the series had anything worth telling outside of the usual “backwoods…hicks…gross…eww…bad…” The 2021 reboot directed by Mike P. Henson (The Domestics) changes that, and some. Decidedly unmoored from the story established in the first six entries, the new Wrong Turn follows a suspiciously similar plot of conventionally good-looking couples who make the mistake of traversing the uncharted innards of the Appalachian Trail. Only this time, the threat doesn’t come from a family of deformed crazies (there are none here). Rather, the threat comes from the cruel constructs that govern and complicates our co-existence as people.
If it sounds snobbish and highfalutin, it’s because it kind of is. The film opens with a sextet of millennials who, by the skin of their teeth, manage to skid it with off-the-cuff condescensions and entitled remarks. “I don’t know,” exclaims Jen (Charlotte Vega) at a local barperson, explaining that app development at upstarts is ‘working a real job’. It’s a cringe moment, one that borrows from Twitter rhetorics but also feels ultimately deliberate. Jen & Co. are the post-millennial-point-O versions of the characters from the 2003 original—bullish, self-important, and impermanent.
That changes, of course, when they ascend their hike. Coaxed by their friend—a sharp-jawed socialist named Dar (Adain Bradley)—into trekking off-trail, the group find themselves in a steep incline, where a giant log charges at their direction, leaving them incapacitated and lost in an unknown part of the mountain. It’s at this point that one expects a trio of malformed, maniacal bandits—Saw Tooth, One Eye, and Three Finger, the Ed, Edd, and Eddy of horror cinema—but they’re nowhere to be found. Instead, the group tailspins into a series of mishaps that leads them to The Foundation, a skull-bearing, self-sustaining tribe that, fearing the collapse of America, fled up in A.T. to start a community to serve as the foundation, “on which a new nation would be built.”
At this point, the film feels like a totally different piece. In the gaming world, it’s called a “jebait”. And Nelson, I think, jebaited us good…or at least good enough. Undoubtedly the best part of the film is set in a tiny chamber where the key populace of the community gather to try the remainders of Jen’s group. The scene single-handedly susses out the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of our ‘protagonists’ (are they?) as Jen tries to coil the Foundation’s laws to acquit them from trespassing among other crimes. It’s a standout scene that ends with a tastefully grotesque resolution.
Meanwhile, a man named Scott (Matthew Modine) drives up to the same West Virginian town to find out what happened to his daughter, who has been MIA for six weeks. His search would eventually lead him to the gates of the commune and us, the viewers, to an amply bloody and thrilling third-act that’s probably more akin in spirit to Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno rather than the previous Wrong Turn films. With this, Nelson has taken the series into a welcome detour, in a thriller in which the supposed hunted are no less barbaric than the hunters and the supposed hunters no less priggish than their game.
That isn’t to say that Wrong Turn is a perfect course-correction. The first half is a tad too messy to repel less forgiving fans, much less those counting on an appearance from the series’ star cannibalistic inbreds. The smaller characters, outside of the ones mentioned in this review, have nary any utility other than bodies to conveniently propel the plot forward. These are meat that screenwriter McElroy could have easily trimmed off and made the new film a complete splice from the first six films.
That being said, the very existence of Wrong Turn (apparently also called The Foundation) is fresh enough that you wonder if there’s a world where the franchise becomes an anthology featuring the horrors that dwell deep in the Appalachian Trail, kind of like what Season of the Witch could have been for Halloween.