Movie review by Greg Carlson
According to “Wrong Turn,” another predictable entry in the long-stale teen horror genre, West Virginia is the sort of place where generations upon generations of inbreeding has led to a family of anti-social cannibals out to devour any traveler hapless enough to wander through the state’s rural back roads. Despite protestations by West Virginia Division of Tourism officials, as well as Governor Bob Wise, who opined of the movie “I think it’s trash,” creepy, shack-dwelling hillbillies apparently translate to financial success – especially when mayhem and misadventure are added to the mix.
“Wrong Turn” begins with young med student Chris (Desmond Harrington) en route to a crucial job interview in Raleigh, North Carolina. Tooling along in his vintage Mustang, everything is peachy until a major highway back-up blocks his path. Unwisely opting to take a dirt road “short cut,” Chris accidentally collides with a parked SUV (the smash-up, incidentally, is very well-staged), completely disabling his car. Occupied by a quintet of attractive young campers, including stoner-couple Evan (Kevin Zegers) and Francine (Lindy Booth), freshly engaged Scott (Jeremy Sisto) and Carly (Emmanuelle Chriqui), and the gloomy, recently – and rather conveniently – dumped Jessie (Eliza Dushku), the SUV had been deliberately sabotaged courtesy of barbed wire stretched across the road.
That’s a bad sign, especially when cell phones don’t work and the nearest gas station is a good hike. Naturally, the kids decide to split up, with Evan and Francine staying behind to watch the vehicles. As soon as the others are out of earshot, the unfazed pair decides to indulge their libidinous urges. Splitting up and sex are a literal magnet for homicidal crazies, and before you can say “disembowelment” the movie is off and running – and running, and running.
Fortunately, director Rob Schmidt knows how to build suspense – even when the outcomes of Alan McElroy’s script can be guessed well in advance. “Wrong Turn” plays like an amalgam of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” and “Deliverance” (which is name-checked by Sisto’s wise-cracking character) albeit with increased action and much more photogenic victims. One extended set piece, a nighttime cat-and-mouse chase that takes place high above the forest floor, is nearly worth the price of admission. Scrambling up trunks and negotiating skinny branches like high-wire daredevils, the protagonists must stay just steps ahead of an ax-wielding marauder. This scene, as well as a few others, transcend the typical expectations of the horror movie by virtue of their imagination and visual flair.
The downfall of the movie, however, comes ironically at the hand of special-effects wizard and co-producer Stan Winston. Characters with monikers like Three Finger, Saw Tooth, and One Eye are unquestionably scarier when left in the shadows and to the imagination. Winston should know, with all of his experience and skill, that less is more, but apparently he could not resist whipping up large batches of latex appliances and gruesome dentures. Unseen, the cackling ghouls are genuinely spooky. Out where we can view them clearly, the results are disappointing and anything but frightening.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/2/03.