Fifteen years ago I dragged a girl I was dating to see a little film called Wrong Turn. She was not a fan of horror films. Needless to say we didn’t date for very long but I’ll always have Wrong Turn. The “redneck” slasher film that was part Texas Chainsaw Massacre and part Deliverance was released on May 30 2003. In the 15 years since it was released, Wrong Turn has spawned several sequels, which have largely been dumped straight to video. Today in The Vault, on its anniversary, I take a closer look at this rural slasher film and why its endured as a minor horror franchise.
Familiar Storytelling Done Right
Wrong Turn was neither a critical nor a financial success for Warner Bros Studios when it was released. The film only grossed north of $15 million against a production budget of approximately $12 million (Box Office Mojo, nd). Critics singled out the film for its lack of originality in storytelling. It is certainly hard to argue that Wrong Turn isn’t a derivative and unoriginal film.
In terms of the basic plot, Wrong Turn follows the familiar backwoods redneck horror narrative. Late for a job interview, medical student Chris Flynn decides to take a shortcut through the West Virginia wilderness on a dirt road. As the title of the film implies, Chris literally takes a “wrong turn”, inadvertently crashing into a car carrying five college students on a road trip. Lost and stranded in the woods, the students soon find themselves hunted by three cannibalistic mountain men.
In spite of its lack of trailblazing in the horror genre, Wrong Turn is an inherently watchable film that lends itself to multiple viewings.
In spite of its lack of trailblazing in the horror genre, Wrong Turn is an inherently watchable film that lends itself to multiple viewings. Director Rob Schmidt does a good job pacing the film and setting up its scares. The film’s mutant cannibal hillbillies are kept hidden for the early parts, building towards a big reveal that hits all the right creepy notes. Similarly, the scares and violence are slowly ratcheted up. The film’s opening scene wherein two young mountain climbers are attacked, with one being dragged by her own safety harness is a brilliantly executive scare.
Perhaps the best way to describe Wrong Turn is that it knows what audiences will want to see and delivers on exactly what it promises. A film about cannibalistic mountain men needs to supply a healthy dose of gore for horror fans. While Wrong Turn isn’t going to compete with some of the more hardcore films, it more than capably delivers on its cannibalistic gore with severed ears, chopped body parts, and one of the more inventive ax killings in horror history.
A Surprisingly Strong Cast Turns Out For Dinner
Wrong Turn boasts a better than expected cast for this type of movie. Eliza Dushku, who played Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, headlines the film. Not surprisingly, Dushku is excellent in her role doing the best she can with what’s pretty limited material. Buffy fans will likely be disappointed that Dushku’s character doesn’t get to flex her muscles as much as her television alter-ego. Wrong Turn’s screenplay wastes Dushku, regulating her largely to a “helpless victim” character, particularly in the climax.
Not surprisingly, Dushku is excellent in her role doing the best she can with what’s pretty limited material.
The rest of the cast is capably filled out with several familiar faces including Emmanuelle Chriqui, Jeremy Sisto, Lindy Booth, and Desmond Harrington. One thing about Wrong Turn that elevates it above other rural horror films are its characters who are largely likable and sympathetic. In particular, Sisto is rather endearing in his role, demonstrating a lot of charisma with the small part he’s given. Of course, most viewers aren’t going to be watching Wrong Turn for its performances. Horror fans are turning out for the mutant hillbilly cannibals.
Stan Winston’s Make-Up Effects Are the Real Stars
Fortunately then the most memorable aspect of Wrong Turn is its outstanding make-up effects designed by the legendary Stan Winston. A multi-Oscar nominee and winner for Best Visual and Makeup Effects, Winston’s prolific resume included Aliens, Predator, Edward Scissorhands, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. His makeup effects for the film’s hillbilly killers – Three Finger, Saw Tooth, and One Eye – are remarkable and instantly serve to distinguish Wrong Turn from most rural horror film villains.
Aside from Winston’s makeup effects, there isn’t much else about these cannibalistic, inbred horror antagonists that stands out. None of the hillbilly killers are fleshed out or given any motivation or backstory. Three Finger, played by Canadian character actor Julian Richings, is arguably the most memorable of the villains. Richings gives the character a distinctive, haunting laugh that at least gives the character some distinguishing personality.
A Legacy of Endless Sequels
I was aware that a sequel, Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, followed a few years later. That sequel, which had the distinction of casting punk rock legend, Henry Rollins, was surprisingly good. In fact, Dead End may actually be a better film than the original Wrong Turn. Whereas Wrong Turn feels a little rote and predictable, the over-the-top violence and gross-out effects in Dead End gave the sequel a bit of a wild flair.
Apparently, however, the producers behind Wrong Turn decided the world was lacking in cannibal hillbillies.
Apparently, however, the producers behind Wrong Turn decided the world was lacking in cannibal hillbillies. To rectify this situation, they opted to follow the Hellraiser series’ blueprint and produced a stream of straight-to-video sequels and prequels. To date, five Wrong Turn films have been released since the original, with the most recent hitting Netflix in 2014. Not surprisingly, the quality of these films following Dead End basically dive off of a cliff. There is not much to separate one film from the next aside from fiddling with small details, setting one prequel in the winter and another in an abandoned asylum. The quality of the acting and makeup effects is negatively correlated with the amount of random sex and nudity.
Wrong Turn is the Comfort Food of Horror Films
The word “legacy” probably doesn’t apply here, but Wrong Turn is still a suitably fun horror film. It wasn’t particularly original when it was released and, after 15 years, its basic premise hasn’t gotten any fresher. Look no further than recently released Cannibal Farm for an example of how badly the premise can be executed. But sometimes we just crave something familiar and straightforward, even if we know it isn’t great. Wrong Turn is kind of like comfort food for horror fans. It gives you exactly what you expect, with no tinkering or fiddling, and capably delivers on the concept.