In 2003, writer Alan McElroy penned Wrong Turn, a cautionary tale about inbred mutant cannibal hillbillies who would gladly eat anyone who wanders off the path...
...Now, in 2021, McElroy convinces director Michael P. Nelson to return to the mountainous woods with a new Wrong Turn, this time with some very different inhabitants. The setting and story remain essentially the same, focusing on a group of youths lost in the wilderness, but fans of the previous six installments of the film series are in for quite a surprise when the villains finally emerge from behind the trees.
Travelling to Appalachia, scared papa Scott (Matthew Modine, 47 Meters Down) reaches out to local police and townies trying to find his daughter Jen (Charlotte Vega) and her friends who disappeared several weeks prior. No one in town seems concerned a group of college-aged people went missing, so only through the power of flashbacks do we learn what happened to the would-be hikers. Six weeks before Scott arrived, Jen rolled into town with her boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley), and couples Luis (Adrian Favela) and Gary (Vardaan Arora), and Milla (Emma Dumont) and Adam (Dylan McTee). However, the locals make it clear the group is not welcomed because they are black, gay, young, and hipster. Undeterred by the stares and threats, the tourists decide to stay focused on the reason for their trip: to hike the Appalachian trail.
Right away the Wrong Turn reboot solves an issue from the previous versions: too many youths. More than one of the sequels in the original franchise featured up to nine doomed college-aged kids, which breaks a pretty standard expectation that groups of travelling friends should never exceed five or six. The reboot pares the number back down to the usual range and, after one night with the hostile townies, sends the group off into the woods. A lovely day hike along the trail shows the beauty of friendship and nature. Surrounded by trees and smiles, the friends enjoy the quiet company of the woods, until Darius suggests the group take a detour (going against the warnings from the creepy hotel proprietor) in search of a Civil War fort. Soon the happy little trees reveal a deadly trap, and the group ends up taking a wrong turn.
After accidently spending the night in a graveyard, the hikers wake up one member short and full of questions about their surroundings. Jen keeps seeing shadowy people in the background and finds a mysteriously well-kept pre-Civil War plaque listing a group of family names who pledged to do what is right for America. Who lives in these woods? Instead of the mentally and physically deformed inbred brothers featured in all six of the previous films, the reboot behaves more like a vengeful version of Shyamalan’s The Village with hints of Midsommar.
As the movie progresses, the viewer will find themselves in a ritualistic folk horror, where a group called The Foundation, led by Bill Sage (We Are What We Are, Pale Door), lives life by standards similar to the 1800s, refusing to adapt to current society or accept any outsiders. However, the hikers of Wrong Turn (2021) must have seen too many Wrong Turn movies because, when first encountering the skull-wearing people in Krampus-style costumes, the goddamn stupid college kids (Tucker and Dale reference) assume the worst about these strangely dressed mountain men. Subtext unfolds as The Foundation and the youths find themselves pitted against each other. Nelson and McElroy might present the villains in a much more appealing package, but the violence and gore still resemble that in the franchise’s previous films. Horrific stake-riddled traps and brutal life-altering torture still occur throughout the film, letting the viewer know to always stay on the path. And when Jen and her friends leave their world and enter a new unforgiving place, the harsh perception of the camera intensifies the hopelessness of the situation as the torch-lit atmosphere offers a grainy presentation of their surroundings.
I understand the reason for getting away from the horrific hillbilly stereotype and cutting out the deformed characteristics from the Hillick family of movies 1-6, but what’s a Wrong Turn movie without cannibalism? There are hints of people-eating towards the end, but nowhere near the level we’ve come to expect from Wrong Turn. Taking such a departure from the original series poses some difficult obstacles for the reboot to overcome. First, people who did not like the original Wrong Turn movies will automatically be dissuaded from watching another one. And the fans of the original series might feel robbed of the mutant hillbillies they have come to know and love. Reshaping a brand can prove either a failure or a cult-level reward. So, will Wrong Turn (2021) end up being a Leprechaun: Origins? Or a Halloween III? It all depends on how many horror fans can let themselves get lost in the woods.
Wrong Turn comes to theaters from Saban Films on January 26th.
By Amylou Ahava