The press materials for Wrong Turn boast of “a film steeped in the traditions of classic ’70s-style horror movies”; if only that were true. It was true of Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, which came and went rather quickly; Zombie’s effort, whatever its flaws, had a rotgut intensity indebted to vintage grindhouse horror. Wrong Turn tries valiantly to resurrect the psycho-hillbilly genre, a staple in modern slasher films going back to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 2000 Maniacs in 1964, but it forgets that the best horror movies of this type — Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes — had no name stars. Here, you say “Oh, that’s Eliza Dushku from Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Hey, Desmond Harrington from Ghost Ship” — the familiarity is comforting, and this type of movie shouldn’t be comforting. The ads for Chainsaw intoned, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” Well, we pretty much figure Eliza Dushku will survive; she’s on the poster and everything.
Admirably, the movie wastes little time getting onto the on-ramp. A couple of rock-climbers fall victim to shadowy killers, and the standard-issue freaky opening-credits sequence briefs us on a group of deformed, inbred West Virginia “mountain men.” The deformities in question look real and horrifying, but the three actual villains are obvious boogeymen from the Stan Winston make-up studio — long-haired galoots with scraggly teeth, who speak in their own guttural language while carving up some hapless camper.
Med student Chris (Harrington, in a dead-calm performance to match Robert Patrick in Terminator 2) gets into a car accident with a bunch of teens (including Dushku, who can’t quite shake her too-cool-for-school mannerisms left over from Faith on Buffy) on a godforsaken stretch of road. Predictably, the first among them to become hillbilly fodder are the sex-and-weed-obsessed couple; the forbidding morals of these movies haven’t changed much in a quarter-century. Harrington and Dushku pair off with the “nicer” couple, who are engaged to be married and therefore earn the right to live longer. They stumble upon a ramshackle cabin crammed with the sort of squalor décor — rotting food, buzzing flies, odd things kept in jars — familiar from this movie’s ancestors (especially Chainsaw, which showed us fear in a roomful of bones and chicken feathers).
Wrong Turn, impersonally directed by Rob Schmidt from a script by longtime hack Alan McElroy (Spawn, Halloween 4), has nothing in particular going on in it aside from fight and flight. The hillbillies, inarticulate grunters seen mostly in shadow, have no personalities or desires (aside from killing people); they’re as unreachable and unintelligible as Orcs. The movie shies away from the paranoid subtext of all films of this stripe: city folk just ain’t welcome out there in the boonies, where murder and moonshine are the regional pastimes. These could be any woods, and the killers could be vampires or something, and it would make no difference to the action.
Which, as horror action goes, is somewhat lackluster. It’s the usual quick-cut, this-is-all-we-can-show-you R-rated mayhem, with such implements as axes, arrows, and barbed wire looped around the face. A scene in which several of the protagonists cower in terrified hiding while one of their number is sliced up is too brief to build up any suspense, and we don’t buy that the hillbillies don’t notice they’ve got company. A sequence up in a watchtower is just an excuse for a highly implausible tree-jumping episode. Wrong Turn isn’t insane enough to be scary, and it’s too unpleasant to be fun. The problem with the movie is that it’s really “steeped in the traditions” of the non-classic horror movies of the ’90s.