Wrong Turn (2003)

Eliza Dushku: Where Desmond and I go right here, was, like, fun for no one. Because it took forever and it was cold and dirty and smelly.

Rob Schmidt: I tried to do the good director thing by showing the actors that it was okay to be under the bed by going under it yourself… I did it for a second, and when I got out, I was like, “Oh my fuckin’ god!”
— Commentary track, Wrong Turn

“I remember that shot,” offers Desmond Harrington during Wrong Turn‘s standard issue opening soar over an ominous forest. “Those are trees.” His co-commentators, director Rob Schmidt and Eliza Dushku, burst into laughter. Already, the DVD looks to be more fun than the movie.

Fox’s release of Wrong Turn on DVD now will presumably generate interest in Dushku’s new tv series, Tru Calling (premiering 30 October on, you guessed it, Fox). Happily, the DVD reveals that she is as savvy and funny as you’d want the girl who played Faith to be. Less happily, the DVD does provide another opportunity to view Wrong Turn, which, as its title suggests, doesn’t really have right way to go. A standard slasher flick, it sets a group of beautiful young people in the path of onrushing nutcases, here inbred cretins in the mountains of West Virginia. Working from a script by Alan McElroy (also responsible for Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever), Schmidt provides an efficient, if unsurprising, experience. As the movie opens (just after that “trees” shot), the camera picks up the first victims to be, a pair of rock climbers. Dushku offers, “These are two actors that I don’t know.” She gets points for honesty.

“The thing about Wrong Turn,” explains Schmidt, calmly, “is that it’s a ’70s-style horror film like The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the idea is to make something that gives the audience, every few minutes, a jolt of brutal horror-violence, and then a sort of tension between the jolts. This is, I guess, a jolt period.” Dushku sounds like she’s been physically jerked at the mic: “My whole body is jolting.” Well okay, she’s trying to be nice.

After the jolt, the film provides, skeletal backstory, by way of The Book of Genetic Mutations, with photos of bad teeth and deformed fingers, newspaper headlines, cells under microscopes, skulls that zap into negative photography, and missing persons notices. And then (as Dushku giggles, “Here’s the kid!”), you see Harrington as Chris, med school graduate driving his Mustang to an interview. When he runs into traffic, he takes the inevitable “wrong turn,” onto a dirt road, where he comes across the inevitable bad-teethed guy on a porch Schmidt reassures: “This character here, Wayne Robson, actually has good teeth, Stan Winston designed the teeth that he’s wearing.” And as he suggests that he’s a great character actor who’s been around, Harrington blurts, “He’s old!” Yes, smart guy, and he was in Robert Altman movies. “Really?” gasps Harrington.

Still trying to explain his thinking, Schmidt describes the ’70s-style cinematography, a time when lighter cameras came into use. “You’ll see,” he says, “not the kung-fu snap zooms, but the lyric, drifty zooms like in Serpico or French Connection.” It’s true, the film looks terrific, courtesy of DP John Bartley. Dushku agrees, and adds, during a particularly captivating low-angle shot of Harrington in his car, as he roars into the dust, “I like how Desmond’s eyes match his shirt and match his car.” Girl knows what’s what.

He takes those eyes off the road while passing a deer carcass, and blam! he hits a van loaded for a camping adventure, stopped in the middle of the road. Here he meets his fellow victims to be: slightly wild Franny (Lindy Booth) and her pot-smoking pal Evan (Kevin Zegers), Scott (Jeremy Sisto) and his fiancée Carly (played by Emmanuelle Chriqui, a character whom Schmidt accurately describes as “the annoying girl, who you know in a movie like this is going to be killed. She’s going to slow the other people up and then eventually, she’s going to be killed”), and Dushku’s tough chick Jessie. (On seeing herself for the first time, Dushku can’t help it: inspired by the flag on her tidy little top, she says, “I have to make a shout out to my Albanian people.” Okay.)

The entire crew is soon beset by a squad of Deliverance-inspired, Winston-designed gnarly inbreds: Three-Finger (Julian Richings), Saw-Tooth (Garry Robbins), and One-Eye (Ted Clark). (Dushku notes that Clark “was the most Method of the Mountain Men, I might note, he would lurk in between scenes, on the side of the set, and make faces. It was kind of cool, because he really did freak me out.”) These guys, as Winston intends, 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.

As Schmidt puts it, in recent slasher movies, “there’s a lot of irony, and they make a lot of jokes and they don’t actually feel scary, and I wanted to make a movie that was a totally straightforward horror film, not ironic, and not sarcastic. You meet people and then they start to die.” Indeed, that is what happens here. The kids 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. Once the first two deadmeat characters are dispatched (they smoke dope and so, must die), the gore begins in earnest, as the four survivors (who don’t yet know their friends are dead) come upon a tin-roofed cabin where they think — for no discernable reason — they’ll find a phone inside.

This is the Terrible Place that shows up in all slasher films, and the spooky images (and occasional joke) are drawn from cleverer precursors like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The kids traipse through the cabin, coming across music boxes, jars of body parts and teeth, doll heads, and oh yes, razor wire. Schmidt recalls the “awesome set, [with] all sorts of creepy, strange things,” and Dushku corroborates, “It was so packed with stuff and they were really disturbing things, so they were creepy every day.”

When the inbreds return, with Franny’s almost dead self in tow, the kids hide under the bed and in closets while the cretins hack away at her leg and shuffle about with their large weapons exposed. The kids’ eventual escape leads where you know — the inbreds whoop and holler as they chase their prey, a sound that echoes through the night (Dushku: “I think there’s something really disturbing about your perpetrator taunting you, and making those noise, and almost laughing at how terrified you are”). The kids steal the brutes’ pickup truck. The mutants come with bows and arrows. One of the group’s noble self-sacrifice leads to terrible loss of innocence. Etc.

The DVD includes a number of repetitive featurettes (“Making of Wrong Turn,” “Eliza Dushku: Babe in the Woods” [where everyone says how great she is, which you already know], “Stan Winston Featurette,” and, on the widescreen side, “Fresh Meat: The Wounds of Wrong Turn” (in which Winston describes the making of the Mountain Men, using medical reference; and Schmidt compares horror to porn: At a base level, it’s a really pure cinematic experience, where you get to go into a dark safe place and watch this fantasy, and get really amped up with adrenalin and then there are these releases, where you get to calm down”) and three uninteresting deleted scenes.

No matter what the DVD throws at you, its focus is the same as the film’s. This is Dushku’s movie. 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 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.