One does not expect much from the remake/reboot/reimagining of 2003’s Wrong Turn, a vile and artless heap of exploitative garbage about a group of virginal teens and the accident that brings them, fatally, into the vicinity of a bunch of inbred cannibals in the mountains of West Virginia. Five films followed ― two direct sequels, two back-to-back prequels, and a semi-reboot (all sent directly to disc). Now, less than 10 years since that other attempt to reboot the franchise, we have the new (and, for those keeping track, seventh) Wrong Turn, which hails from the same screenwriter (Alan McElroy) as the first film and a director (Mike P. Nelson) who has made his career thus far in straight-to-disc franchise follow-ups. One might even be forgiven for expecting the worst.

Shock of all shocks, here is a brutally efficient, surprisingly ambitious upheaval of everything the original film was trying to do and a lot of things McElroy apparently never thought to do in the first place. The characters are intelligent, only responsible for a small handful of unwise decisions, whereas nearly everything the characters of the original film did suggested the gobsmacking missteps of subterranean humanoids just discovering light and sound. The violence here seems at the service of the plot, instead of the very makeup of the plot, and there is a genuinely unexpected thematic arc in place ― not only for the central heroine, either. The earlier film was just a barrage of sadistic, gory imagery for its own benefit.

The heroes here are a group of six, consisting of three couples: Jen (Charlotte Vega) and Darius (Adain Bradley); Milla (Emma Dumont) and Adam (Dylan McTee); and Luis (Adrian Favela) and Gary (Vardaan Arora). They have arrived in Virginia to hike the Appalachian Trail and soon find themselves at the whims of a backwoods cult. In a framing device ― whose period in conjunction with the main action is a minor but notable detail that must be discovered on one’s own ― Jen’s father, Scott (Matthew Modine, strong as the film’s moral anchor), grows worried about his daughter’s lengthy phone silence and decides to investigate.

The addition of the framing device is the first sign that McElroy and Nelson are in complete control of their vision. This is not a closed world, thankfully, where the disappearances of six friends goes mysteriously unnoticed. The second sign that we are in the grip of a solid vision comes when the entire arc of the original film comes to a close with a series of genuinely unforeseen circumstances. At first, it seems like the usual sort of thing: Adam has heard tell of a perfectly preserved but rarely visited fortress used in the Civil War somewhere off-trail, and the group deviates, despite the repeated warnings not to do so.

From here, the film diverges from any kind of expectation we might have of it, aside from the simplest ones. Yes, by the time the real plot kicks in, one of their number will have died (the result of a fast-falling log, which either came loose or was pushed). We expect that in a movie of this sort. We also expect the backwoods cult (whose people are governed by the authoritative Venable, played by a steely Bill Sage, and whose operations are overseen by his daughter Edith, played by an extraordinarily unnerving Daisy Head) to kidnap the remaining members of the group, since that’s what backwoods cult types do in movies about virginal heroes who fall into their traps. And of course, we expect the big, violent climax in which the characters fight back against their captors.

In that respect, McElroy and Nelson deliver on the “expected,” but the quotation marks around the word are necessary. That’s because the filmmakers provide all these things within a construction that is distinctly unfamiliar. We do not expect the movie to allow the heroes to grieve and regroup after that first death. We do not expect that, the first time one of them must use deadly self-defense, the movie will later recontextualize the events to reflect poorly on that particular hero. We certainly do not expect a climax this simultaneously hopeful and pitiless, suggesting a heroine who has escaped her predicament but will never be able to leave it behind entirely.

In Jen, we have a complex, thoughtful and ultimately devastated protagonist, and in Vega, we have a strong, badass presence that nevertheless houses a real possibility of posttraumatic stress disorder (such as the way the actress plays every note of the climax as if Jen has dissociated and not quite snapped out of that state). Few would anticipate something as pointed in Wrong Turn’s overall message ― which seems intrinsically connected in some ways to the futility of colonial interloping ― as it is genuinely terrifying in its vision of what a generation of violence, trickling into a present unprepared for it, might look like once it has erupted.

A brutally efficient, surprisingly ambitious upheaval of everything the original film was trying to do.
80 %
Brutal Efficiency
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