Review: Wrong Turn (2021)

Director: Mike P Nelson

Stars: Charlotte Vega, Daisy Head, Bill Sage

For the better part of a decade, the Wrong Turn franchise terrorised straight-to-DVD horror with a slew of tawdry sequels that ranged from bad and really very bad. Indeed the otherwise functional 2003 original came to feel like something of a minor masterpiece by comparison. As the years rolled by, Wrong Turn‘s Appalachian cannibal schtick came to feel increasingly insipid and poorly conceived. Things went relatively quiet following 2014’s Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort – a film whose only legacy turned out to be a bizarre and unexpected legal case. Now, improbably entering its third decade of existence, original creator Alan B McElroy returns in an effort to provide a much-needed course correction. A right turn, if you will.

Previously owned by 20th Century Fox, I’m guessing this series didn’t quite fit into the Disney mold, so the property has landed in Lionsgate’s ownership. Lionsgate have a reasonably fair history of treating their horror assets with actual pride. In keeping with this, from the off you can sense that this iteration of the series has had more money injected into it. It looks handsome. It even features a known actor (Matthew Modine) in a supporting role. But more key to its success is a sincere intent to update the core premise and put well-worn stereotypes to bed.

Jen (a stellar Charlotte Vega), her boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley) and four of their friends are taking the scenic route through Virginia. A layover in a nondescript backwater town causes ire among the locals, who take exception to their ‘hipster’ appearance and racial and sexual diversity. Framed as a flashback following the disappearance of this sextet, their exploits come with a palpable sense of doom on top of our expectations of Wrong Turn as a horror movie.

Classic horror tropes assert themselves as the group dependably ignore advice to stay on the Appalachian trails and wander across rugged hill and dale, making their own way. No sooner have the group strayed from the path, they’re set-up on by unseen forces lurking in the woods. So far, so-so. But while the dialogue and early plot turns clunk a little hard, director Mike P Nelson approaches it all with a gravity that sells it, so long as you give yourself over. It helps that his Wrong Turn is possibly the most artfully crafted of the entire set, as McLeroy steers the series into new terrain.

Subtitled in some territories “The Foundation“, this seventh Wrong Turn dispenses with the wearisome deformed inbreds and instead confronts modern America with its violent history and ongoing tendencies. Plenty of disdainful references are made to the confederacy and slave trade that Jen and co associate with rural Virginia, but in the woods they discover an hermetic community that harks back to the before the Civil War. Led by the bizarrely well-groomed Venable (Bill Sage), this sect have completely avoided all of the USA’s supposed progress, have their own language and their own secular practices. Without modern technology, our group of ‘enlightened’ youngsters are ill-equipped to deal with the community’s traps and tribalism.

Still, while it rejects past tropes, Wrong Turn circa 2021 embraces others. A pretty bizarre misunderstanding casts the dynamic between our wandering survivors into the I Know What You Did Last Summer-mold (or, in this case, I Know What You Did Two Minutes Back) and triggers a healthy escalation in stakes. After an amiable and generic first 40 minutes, Nelson’s film finds a faster, propulsive rhythm before things really skid off the beaten path into the thrillingly unknown… and unpredictable.

Wrong Turn has always played on the sense of an immeasurable and irrevocable class rift across the USA. The arrogant rich and educated versus the poor and exploited. The series grew out of Bush Jr’s divided America and now it re-emerges in the wake of Trump’s – a land that appears only more staggeringly at odds with itself. For all their bear skins, deer skulls and associated iconography, the tribal settlers deep in the Appalachian woods are increasingly portrayed as justified in their complaints and assessments of the world surrounding them.

Which is not to say that Wrong Turn is an advocate of right wing extremism. Indeed, the secular group at the heart of the film has more in common with the ideals of socialism. Our supposed heroes are frauds; products of an inherently corrupt modern society. Rather, like Craig Zobel’s The Hunt, Wrong Turn ultimately takes a dim view of everyone. Granted, Nelson plays this take with a lot less humour than Zobel did, but there’s a shared sense of exasperation at the conflict itself. As though the horror genre has grown impatient with our short-sighted intolerance of one another.

With so much of America fragmented in the current climate, Wrong Turn suggests a desire to start over; for rebirth; to be young again. That idealism overlooks key aspects of how the United States began (tellingly, an authentic Native American presence is notably absent from the story, and the whole thing could be perceived as a reconfigured tale of ‘cowboys and Indians’), but it speaks volumes of how far we’ve come that the only way out seems to be a complete systemic overhaul. But even that seems unattainable in the misanthropic worldview presented here.

With unexpected echoes of Midsommar and even M Night Shyamalan’s The VillageWrong Turn is the first real surprise of the year. Of all the films to label ‘thought-provoking’…

 

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