‘Wrong Turn’ (2021) Review: Dir. Mike P. Nelson [A Scare a Day]

In 2003 the first Wrong Turn film was released in cinemas across the world. It came in the wake of the horror revival begun by Scream in 1996 and offered a new generation their own version of the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. It starred Eliza Dushku and Desmond Harrington, and helped drive the newer horror offerings back to the scary and bloody roots, forgoing the tongue-in-cheek commentary of the Scream franchise and the glossy teen magazine aesthetic of Final Destination, My Bloody Valentine, and I Know What You Did Last Summer. The film performed well and, as is the way with all popular genre films, inspired a wave of sequels and prequels. Now comes the inevitable reboot – Wrong Turn (2021). 

The Wrong Turn series is known for its menacing family of cannibalistic mutants that hunt (and consume) those that stray into their territory. It’s this element that made it a more modern whirl on the aforementioned Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, yet it has been completely removed from this new working of the story. Our beloved cannibalistic maniacs are replaced by a hidden society known as The Foundation. This information may be seen as some as being a spoiler, yet it is important to highlight as those expecting the usual Wrong Turn silliness will be very disappointed. If you’re in the market for over-the-top kills, mindless violence, and comedically vicious monstrous killers, then you’ll have to look elsewhere. It’s best to view this Wrong Turn as the Halloween III: Season of the Witch of the series. 

After the original Wrong Turn came Joe Lynch’s Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, a film which injected an icky vein of humour directly to the franchise’s heart, and paved the way for the four films that followed. These remaining four films depleted in terms of quality and content with each new chapter, and by the end of the sixth film, the series’ reputation was left in tatters. It should come as no surprise then that the reboot went right back to the drawing board, throwing out almost everything that would make it a traditional Wrong Turn movie. It’s a bold move, and one that will no doubt alienate the bulk of the pre-existing audience, yet if we view it outside of the franchise, it actually has some interesting things to say. 

Told in a non-linear structure Wrong Turn opens with Matthew Modine’s Scott, a father who is desperate to find his daughter, Jenny (Charlotte Vega), who went missing somewhere in Virginia whilst travelling the Appalachian Trail. After visiting the last known location of Jenny and her friends, he finds the locals less than helpful, the town shrouded in secrets and mis-truths. The story then rewinds six weeks and joins Jenny and her pals, and proceeds to fill in the events that led to their disappearance, before rejoining Scott on his hunt. 

The narrative formation may try to add something slightly more unusual to the series, but the end result just bloats and drags the pacing down. The middle third – the section with Jenny et al – is by far the strongest (more on that later), and the wraparound scenes with Scott just add extra weight that the film doesn’t need. It leaves the viewer with the sensation of the story beginning twice, making it hard for it to find its feet. In the final act when we jump back to him, the momentum that has been building is stopped dead in its tracks; from then on, the story presents itself as being on the verge of ending, and yet it takes what feels like forever for it to actually do so. Just when it feels like we’re about to fade to credits, something else happens, giving us a rival for The Return of the King for endings. We never even get to an actual ‘fade to black’ as the credits play out over the top of more action. One hundred and ten minutes is a long time to sustain an audience, and Wrong Turn could benefit from some chopping here and there to make a punchier narrative. 

As previously alluded to, it is during the middle section that Wrong Turn (2021) really comes alive. As soon as we join Jenny and her companions, we’re into familiar genre territory, at least initially. Our cast of ‘stock’ characters have had a makeover; in place of the jock, bitch, brain, slut, and comedy relief, we are presented with a more progressive group. Firstly, there’s a greater representation of ethnicity, typically a slasher would be a group of plain white folks, maybe with the occasional black person. Here, our lead girl Jenny is in an interracial relationship with boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley), then there’s the homosexual coupling of Gary (Vardaan Arora) and Luis (Adrian Favela), another interracial pairing. Rounding out the sextuplet are engaged couple Milla (Emma Dumont) and Adam (Dylan McTee) who even out the white portion of the bunch. This new world forward group obviously turn heads when they arrive in the backwoods Virginia town and this leads to a series of awkward exchanges before they head off on their trek. The interesting aspect is that this group is as opposed to the townsfolk’s way of life and beliefs as the residents are against theirs. This is a strand that is continued once in the woods, with writer Alan B. McElroy offering some very interesting discourse as to just who is the real villain. These new ideas offer a surprising depth to the story and a welcome respite from the cut and dry good and bad.    

It’s not all cerebral mind games however, as director Mike P. Nelson does retain at least some of the gore that audiences will be baying for. Most of the gore is of a squishy nature and Nelson gifts us with at least one death that stands amongst the best in the franchise. Whilst not always presenting as a straight horror, Nelson seasons the setting with all the appropriate elements of creep. These components are then kicked up a fair few notches once we meet our woodland civilisation, though the visuals on display are more heavily aligned with folk horror than slasher chic.  

Although the antithesis of Wrong Turn films that have come before, this 2021 version offers an entertaining slice of folksy horror. Yes, it’s sad that the cannibals have been replaced by a more highbrow discourse on prejudice and societal norms, but this reset does at least salvage the series from the farcical mess it had become. As a conventional Wrong Turn film that audiences are anticipating, Wrong Turn (2021) fails at every level. However, when judged as a standalone genre film, Mike P. Nelson has actually crafted a rather interesting tale. 

Wrong Turn is available to watch on Netflix UK now. It is also available to own on physical and digital home entertainment formats.

This review first appeared on THN.