Horror is going back to basics. Following the onslaught of teen-geared slasher movies in recent years, 2003 has welcomed the return of a long-forgotten, adult style of horror. Earlier this year, Rob Zombie paid tribute to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with his own backwoods horror film House of 1,000 Corpses, and soon two horror icons will come face to face in the much-anticipated Freddy vs. Jason. In keeping with this latest trend, Wrong Turn plays out like a cross between TCM and Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, pitting terrified city folk against a pack of villains who know the land and use it to their murderous advantage.
Wrong Turn emerges as a truly relentless horror film; not once does it sell out. A chilling air hangs over every scene -- an eerie and frightening atmosphere hinting at the terrors awaiting its main characters. This never-ending creepiness is just one of the elements contributing to the film’s success.
The spooky story begins with Chris (Desmond Harrington) running late for a flight he needs to take. Desperate to get there as soon as possible, he goes off the main highway and into the backwoods of West Virginia, taking an unpaved road as a shortcut. But then he runs into another group also stuck -- as the result of a suspiciously-placed section of barbed wire that blew out their tire. Chris and the others, including friends Jessie (Eliza Dushku), Carly (Emmanuelle Chriqui), and Scott (Jeremy Sisto), go for help, but when they come upon a cabin, they discover a literal house of horrors.
That blow-out wasn’t an accident, and this isn’t the first time people have been stuck here, judging from the various bloody body parts found lying around the shack. Next, three deformed, inbred, and cannibalistic mountain men chase the frightened group members through the woods. Trespassers in their pursuers’ land, Chris, Jessie, and the others must fight to survive the wilderness and the bloodthirsty hicks chasing them.
Yes, Wrong Turn is a disturbing flick, but I mean that in a good way. With a story that could have degenerated into a dumb slasher movie replete with gratuitous violence and cliched characters, director Rob Schmidt creates instead a scary and suspenseful horror picture. Some viewers may find Wrong Turn gross and offensive, but I predict most horror fans will enjoy its scary thrills. By placing characters in a situation where cell phones and the police can't help them out, this movie reaches the same level of primal fear that fueled such genre gems as TCM and Tourist Trap. Schmidt’s tight direction puts you right where the characters are, confronting the horror head-on and at its most freaky (one harrowing sequence involves four of the kids looking on in fear as a friend is chopped up by the mountain men).
Alan McElroy’s (Ballistic:Ecks vs. Sever) screenplay is pretty basic stuff, a 90-minute chase with a few gory bits thrown in among the same old characters we’ve seen before, but it holds an ace or two up its sleeve. McElroy isn’t afraid to get creative with the bloodier scenes, particularly a trooper’s sudden death. The mountain men are kept silent and somewhat hidden from view, as if even the light is afraid to show us how ugly these dudes really are, but the trio quickly turns fearsome when they go out hunting for city folk. Stan Winston’s make-up turns the inbreds into tall trolls with no teeth, but just the idea that they know the land better than their potential victims do increases their villainous power.
Harrington performs well as the cool, collected leader of the survivors; Dushku does solid work as this film’s answer to Halloween’s Laurie Strode; and Jeremy Sisto plays the nice guy convincingly. Emmanuelle Chriqui whines and complains a bit too much, though, and the other kids might as well be nameless crew members. Still, the main actors do a decent job and, for once, actually seemed terrified by the situation they found themselves in.
With The Matrix Reloaded and X2 staking claim to the summer box office, Wrong Turn will probably be lost in the shuffle. Too bad. I think it's a small but ambitious picture that stands out as an effective addition to the contemporary horror genre.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "R" for strong violence and gore, some language and drug use.)
Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.