What to Watch Verdict
'Wrong Turn' cannot find the narrative words to articulate its blurry themes of colonization, barbaric pasts, and cyclical futures beyond "bad people do bad things," which is too slight given the material's intended scope.
🦌 A fresh 'Wrong Turn' direction.
🦌 Bill Sage knows how to lead a proud compound.
🦌 Some nifty (after kill) gore.
🦌 Execution oddly fails to take a stand.
🦌 Beholden to clichés.
🦌 Zero empathy available to make us care about characters.
🦌 Takes big swings, but a lot of whiffs.
Wrong Turn is currently only available to watch in theaters. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recommend checking it out at your local drive-in. If one isn’t available, please be sure to check out state and CDC guidelines before watching in an enclosed space.
In ways, 2021’s Wrong Turn reboot idolizes 2020’s The Hunt. Both are socio-politically supercharged, but where Blumhouse’s scathing right-and-left roaster takes no prisoners, Mike P. Nelson’s reinvention (of an already rebooted backwoods franchise) confoundingly mixes governmental messages. It’s no longer “rednecks” versus “city slickers” and all the classist stereotypes that follow. Writer Alan McElroy modernizes Wrong Turn by predating the Civil War with a sloppy pioneer’s stew of indigenous invasions, millennial aggravations, and purified bloodlines that never takes a stance against the actions of all parties on screen. Combine with a lethargic litany of overused horror tropes or the reduction of female characters to maternal usefulness, and you’ve got one bizarrely ambiguous, ever-so brutal horror tale that’s never thoughtful enough to see through the conversations it sparks.
Jen Shaw (Charlotte Vega) and her outdoorsy pack of Gen-Insta vacationers begin their Virginian hiking trek into the Appalachian mountain range like any other (you’ve seen on horror celluloid). Mouthy douchebro Adam (Dylan McTee) insults good-old-boys at a musty bar, the gang’s inn proprietor warns against veering off marked trails, and Jen’s boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley) gets everyone lost when seeking an abandoned fort from war times that’s, as expected, off marked trails. Legend has it that anyone who wanders around “these parts” without direction will meet “The Foundation,” an isolated commune of inbreds who live by codes established before the North and South ever fought. Enter John Venable (Bill Sage), elder lord over The Foundation, which presents itself as a genuine threat. One that Jen’s father Scott (Matthew Modine) must also confront when he comes searching for his now-missing-for-six-weeks daughter.
Conceptually, Nelson and McElroy reimagine the trapper-country terror within lesser Wrong Turn sequels as a raccoon-skinned caricature of what America could resemble sans technology and further “distractions” Venable might label. The Foundation commits to upholding the “blessed ideal of America” that defines its 1859 declaration, where everyone works, and everyone contributes to a society molded as one whole.
Without a doubt, Wrong Turn means to juxtapose fuzzy moral preservations from our instantaneous hatred of Reddit troll, Adam, to the primitive redefinition of America’s all-attainable dream. That logic fails, relatively early, and quite often afterward, in justifying base-conflict actions. Whether that’s choosing to murder the token queer minority graphically without even ten lines uttered or a later sequence where Darius’ civil engineering background grants him identifiable purpose. At the same time, without protest, the film's female lead offers her body as her only value despite having two masters degrees. Entitled Caucasians continually get salt-of-the-earth locals killed by ignoring explicit warnings while foragers who don't even know the words “democrat” and “republican” preach a better system where wrongdoers are clubbed to death. It’s all so contextually heavy-handed, so explicitly awful, and so incomplete, given there’s never a desire to connect meaningless massacre-y dots.
Everything feels out of continual whack, down to subplots that present themselves in the latter Foundation-set acts of the almost two-hour Wrong Turn redress. Jen’s pivotal growth as a final girl, for example, happens off-screen with hilarious haste, as time passes in the flash of a title card that makes it seem like whichever adventurers find themselves under Foundation captivity have weathered seasons when it’s merely days. What some might consider “big swings”—assertions of misogyny, sightless Foundation torture methods, flipping the redneck script—are oftentimes scoffed at, not appreciated. It’s a substantial deviation from existing source material down do folkloric mossy hunting suits and animal skull masks, but senseless in its disdain for modern America. It’s never apparent whose side Wrong Turn is on, nor does it validate or empower those few characters who are afforded something more than passerby development—one such protagonist during the credits, not even in primetime.
While Wrong Turn is a smorgasbord of missed opportunities, what’s worse are outright failings as a horror movie beyond its head-first submersion into commentative lawlessness (indignation for indignation's sake). Special effects craft a few gruesome death sequences between rolling logs that reach peak-crushing speed or skulls pulverized by the muscular might of a mountain chief, but they’re often after damage has been inflicted (off-camera). Characters are detestable beyond retribution as selfie-takers disappear when needed most, or dimwits earn the targets on their back, forcing the questions already raised about satirical aims since no one deserves our sympathy—Foundation ties be damned. I know these figments of genre imagination are supposed to suck, but it’s the kind of “suckage” I’m tired of seeing horror filmmakers fall back onto because it’s nothing but furthered clichés.
A shame, really, because Bill Sage’s immaculate hairstyle without a single strand out of place should be worth the price of admission, let alone his savage portrayal as executioner, animal-skin fashion icon, and scowl-stuck sonuvabitch with animalistic traits. Not competition for Matthew Modine, and yet, here we are.
In summation, as best I can compact, Wrong Turn is a dimly generic slice of cultism horror that crosshairs our nation’s past, reliving its glory years loud and proud. Mike P. Nelson peppers nostalgic callbacks like “Wrenhaus Inn'' throughout a story that’s only Wrong Turn relevant in title alone, adopting a more patriotic-punishment approach that ends up being duller than an arrowhead dug from a suburban backyard. It’s uselessly overlong, detrimentally paced, and wasteful when it comes to genre action. Nelson might provoke more visceral responses in an otherwise tighter battle between scholarly metropolitan punks and protectors of sovereign land. A concept that, despite execution, should instill stronger tethers between homegrown fears and archaic beliefs. It’s a shame the film does a better job selling cult life than redeeming humanity, driving home one final assertion about how Wrong Turn veers irredeemably off course until we’re left blankly pondering the ultimate point.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.