With a title like Wrong Turn, there’s not really a right way for this slasher joint to go. And yet it persists, sending lithe young beauties to their gory fates, pretending as though there might be a surprise around the next corner, an event that might not be fully anticipated from every last soul in the audience. To be fair, slasher films don’t typically attract viewers looking to be surprised. Consumers come with expectations — bad behavior, bared bodies, buckets of blood — and the more tortured the bodies and more ghoulish the kills, the more inventive the film. Or so it seems.
In Rob Schmidt’s movie, though, the formula is looking especially creaky. The turn in question occurs on a dirt road, late in the day, far from a phone or cell service, in the mountains of West Virginia (whose Tourism Board should be up in arms over this rendering). Chris Finn (Desmond Harrington ) first appears barreling along in his battered Mustang. A med school graduate (a personal note he lets drop at an appropriate moment), he’s trying to make an interview that is, predictably, a long ways away.
Lost and distracted (he’s playing a loud rock cd and so, woe unto him), Chris slams his car into the back of a car stopped in the middle of this particular dirt road. Seems this car has hit some razor wire, carefully string across the thoroughfare. Now, neither vehicle is usable. Now, Chris and the kids in the car — perky Carly (Emmanuelle Chriqui) and her Xander-ish fiancé Scott (Jeremy Sisto), slightly wild Franny (Lindy Booth) and her pot-smoking pal Evan (Kevin Zegers), and, tough chick Jessie (Eliza Dushku, a.k.a. Faith) — must set off on foot in search of assistance.
Little do they know what you know, from the film’s opening scene, that just a short time before, two prettily anonymous rock climbers have been grabbed up and savaged by an raucous unseen force. This scene is mightily unsettling in the way that such scenes are in such films. That is, it establishes that there are monsters in them hills, and no one who looks good in a spandex shorts and a sports bra should be headed that way.
The unseen force soon makes itself seen, in a squad of gnarly, growly, Deliverance-inspired, Stan Winston-designed inbreds, thusly named in the credits: Three-Finger (Julian Richings), Saw-Tooth (Garry Robbins), and One-Eye (Ted Clark). This cheery threesome look the mutant products of variously recombinant genetic pools: Leatherface meets The X-Files‘ Peacock brothers meets The Hills Have Eyes‘ Jupiter meets Troma’s toxic-wasted critters. They bark and howl, they carry torches at night and prefer their meat raw. In a word, these fellows are nasty.
Chris and company get this clue eventually, though first they have to split up and wander through the backwoods some, kissing, dawdling, and scaring each other in fun, all so you can squirm in your seat — though hardly on the edge of it — as you await the inevitable. And so: little Franny and Evan stay behind with the cars, smoke a little dope, then find themselves thrashed into pieces. Guess what happens when he wanders into the woods to pee and she follows him in, trilling, “Evan!?” Evan?” The camera takes its requisite position near her quivery face or just behind her, so you keep expecting the monster to pop up and git her, and by gum, it does.
Once these two deadmeat characters are dispatched, the gore begins in earnest, when the other four come upon a tin-roofed shack where they think — for no discernable reason — they’ll find a phone inside. This is the Terrible Place that shows up in so many slasher films, and the spooky images (and occasional joke) are drawn from cleverer precursors like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as they traipse through the Terrible Place, coming across music boxes, jars of body parts and teeth, doll heads, and oh yes, razor wire. Gee, you think it might be time to get the heck out of there, but no, these kids have to wait until those dang inbreds come careening down the rocky driveway, towing the kids’ car and hauling Franny’s carcass like venison.
Eek. Now the kiddies have to hide under beds and in closets while the cretins hack away at Franny’s leg and shuffle about with their large weapons exposed, until at last the kids can sneak out and make a run for it when they’re spotted. Yee-ha. The inbreds like to whoop and holler as they chase their prey, a sound that echoes through the night — because day does turn into night, of course — so maybe you’re feeling unnerved or discomfited, but more likely, you’re feeling restless, like, get on with it already. The kids steal the brutes’ pickup truck. The mutants come a-whooping with bows and arrows. One of the group’s noble self-sacrifice leads to terrible loss of innocence. These chase-in-the-woods scenes are roaringly annoying: too incoherent to build tension and too gruesome to forget.
Cue Carly’s whimpering: “I can’t! I can’t!” Girl, I know how you feel.
But if scaredy girl loses control (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”) Faith holds her own. (On this point, Dusku opines, “If you’re going to say I’m being typecast as a woman who only plays strong roles, I can think of many other things it would be worse to be typecast as. I don’t have a problem with it.”) Jessie is a balls-out fighter, game even when she’s got to jump out of a flaming watchtower, or gets dragged, smacked, tied to a bed, and threatened with a blade to the throat. She and Chris fight back with some ingenuity, at one point clambering around on tree limbs in order to get one of the killers (Three-Finger? could be) in position to whomp him off with a let-er-rip branch (it’s weirdly reminiscent of the fabled bamboo scene in Crouching Tiger, this clambering, but with axes and grunts and not a whiff of poetry). The maneuver enrages the remaining brothers, or boyfriends, or fathers, whoever they are, and so the rest of the violence is even more brutal than what’s come before. It appears that even cretins have a vengeance gene.