When I started this project, I actually thought I hadn’t seen the first Wrong Turn. Even going into it, it seemed both familiar and completely new. By the end of the film, I realized that I had not only seen it once, I’d probably seen it a good half dozen times over the years. With performances from some of my favorites, Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under), Desmond Harrington (Dexter) and Eliza Dushku (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I’d seen the flick before. What really surprised me was that such a nondescript slasher could have spawned a franchise of four more films. So, feeling pretty safe in the assumption that I hadn’t seen the other four flicks, I strapped in for a work week of Wrong Turn films to see where the franchise stayed between the lines and where it took some detours onto shaky ground.
The premise of the Wrong Turn films is easy to understand. In the first film, Jeremy Sisto’s character name checks “Deliverance”, and that gets to the root of it pretty quickly. While traveling through West Virginia,am group of travelers takes a wrong turn and finds themselves at the mercy of a trio of redneck, hillbilly, recluse killers. There’s really not much more to it than that. Taking cues from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn should be a pastiche of horror movie tropes that any seasoned fan would be completely aware of, and it is. What elevates the first installment is the performances by the actors who actually give us slasher victims to care about. Sisto is all charisma and charm, Harrington makes for a convincing hero, and Dushku is always great in roles that require a toughness. The gore is solid, and the killers, while nothing spectacular, aren’t fellows you’d like to meet up with in the dark alley of a trailer park. Yet, again, there’s nothing about director Rob Schmidt’s film that should make the powers that be feel like anyone was clam morning for four more installments.
However, four years later (so they obviously had to think about it for a while), the Wrong Turn movies returned with 2007’s Wrong Turn: Dead End that dispensed with the star power, turned up the gore, and threw in a reality TV angle in for good measure. A group of halfway (or no way) celebrities are roped into a reality survival show with a post apocalyptic theme (and hosted by former Punk legend Henry Rollins playing to body type as a former marine), and, of course, they just happen to be sharing the same woodland locale from the first film. It doesn’t take long before the mutant, killer hillbillies are up to their old tricks again. This time we get a little backstory as to how pollution spawned the cannibalistic clan and an assortment of heavily gore filled scenes and some generally sick stuff (like brother and sister mutant having sex while wearing the face of a previous meal). We also learn some very important lessons, the foremost of which is that if you capture Henry Rollins, kill Henry Rollins. Director Joe Lynch took over the reigns for this installment , and he kept a similar tone to the hill folk horror with makeup effects seemingly undaunted by a direct to video budget.
Lynch, of course, left the clan hurt but surviving at the end of Part 2 leaving the door open for another installment. Two years later the thread would be picked up by Declan O’Brien who became the franchise’s steadiest contributor helming the final three entries into the series. This time around in Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead the plot gets mixed up a little with three factions going at it. There’s a group of cops, a passel of escaped prisoners (chained together, ‘natch), and there’s Three Finger, the bow wielding mutant survivor of the last film who made it three movies in before I knew he had a name, and Three Toe (presumably the baby born in the second film’s final frames of Part 2 and not the fellow that used to live next door to me whose license plate read, “Three Toe Theo”) all facing off this time. The extra conflict seems poised to add an extra layer of tension to standard slasher proceedings, but they remain almost inexorably predictable. While the writing certainly suffers, all the more devastating after the rise in quality of the second installment, nearly everything here from the creature make-up to the gore and cinematography just looks cheap. Where the second film defied the logic of direct-to-video sequels, Wrong Turn 3: Left For Dead (the name itself seemingly looking to glom onto the success of the popular game Left 4 Dead) is almost the poster child for such things. I say almost because Transmorphers was a thing.
With Wrong Turn 4 in 2011, O’Brien chose to return to the roots of the series. No, not likable characters and shadowy killer hill folk, but, instead, a further exploration of the roots of Three Finger and his brethren from the first film. This comes in the guise of, as the subtitle dubs it, a Bloody Beginning. In 1974, the three mutant brother and a array of similar mutated folk are being held in isolation at a sanatorium where the inmates bust free and take over the asylum. (To the tune of the Blue Danube Waltz no less) It’s a bloody and promising start to the film, but O’Brien chooses to dispense with his period setting directly and moves the action to the distant past of 2003 when a passel of twenty-something horn balls take a wrong turn and end up at the brother’s digs rather than their ski cabin. The group is portrayed as dim wits and hornballs, the worst of which, a lesbian couple, seem only to be placed amidst the cast to get naked and make out. Now I’m for lesbians and naked gals, which I think lesbians and I can agree on, but when the first thirty minutes contains more making out than a third of a season of The L Word, I feel like someone is just getting their rocks off. Bloody and brutal in parts, Wrong Turn struggles where so many slasher films do. They think they have to give us people we want to see killed, obnoxious jerks with fratty intentions, but what is actually necessary is the core element of the films film that spawned this franchise, characters the viewer would want to see live.
One year later, Declan returned again with a sequel to his prequel with Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines. This time the trio mutant hillbilly brothers is menacing a town which happens to be hosting the “Mountain Man Music Festival”, supposedly a mini-Burning Man which the viewer never sees, where hardcore partiers dress as mutant mountain men based on, you guessed it, the legend of the mutant mountain men. Once again Declan opens his film with a sex scene for the third time letting the viewer know it is business as usual, and it is. The CG blood flows, the characters are mostly vapid, and, since this sequel touts itself as unrated, the vapid characters die in a miasma of computer generated and practical effects in spectacularly over the top fashion. Bow and arrows are after all old hat, or yet to come, whatever, like it matters what the timeline of these movies are. The only redeeming quality is the appearance of Pinhead, Doug Bradley, as the clan patriarch whose imprisonment sparks the brothers killing spree. Bradley elevates his scenes to the point that you wish that the action stayed with him and let the killing go on offscreen in a tense locked room situation. Sadly, that don’t happen, and the best thing that I can say about this movie is that my girlfriend told me she saw it once “on a date” and it has to be one of the worst date movies of all time. Notably, she recalled the film, but no details about the fellow. Good thing I watched it on my own.
After spending five days with the Wrong Turn series watching these films, what is there to say about the franchise. It directly follows the law of diminishing returns, and it is notable that every entry of the franchise features an entirely new cast with no returning actors, even the guys behind the mask. When you can’t even get a guy to hang around to play a slasher twice, then you know it’s merely a grist mill for the direct to video market now. After all, after the first film I didn’t feel compelled to mention a single actor name until Doug Bradley forced my hand in the final installment. Well, I hope it is the final installment. While I really enjoyed how this series started, I call on fans of quality horror, if ever there are stirrings of a Wrong Turn 6, to deluge the producers with maps, road maps, treasure maps, GPS devices, whatever you can spare. We need to rally to get these people some direction because there’s only so many Wrong Turns you can make before you’re just going in circles.