Wrong Turn – A Trilogy of Backwoods Terror

2003 – 2021

Words: Oliver Innocent.

In 1996 Wes Craven’s hip teen meta slasher Scream became a box office smash. Following in its wake came a slew of films seeking to capitalise on Craven’s winning formula. Entries like I Know What You Did Last Summer’s modus operandi was to be as teen friendly as possible. A by-product of this was a tendency to jettison the more unsavoury, adult-oriented aspects of the genre. In other words, there was little to no sex, nudity, or graphic bloody violence making it onscreen.

In the early 2000s filmmakers like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie who had been raised on the violent exploitation horrors of the ‘70s and ‘80s crusaded to bring this more dangerous side of the genre back to the forefront. A response to what they saw as the overtly slick and bloodless dilution of the genre, their debut features Cabin Fever and House of 1000 Corpses, were throwbacks to the extreme backwoods horrors of The Evil Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The rural slasher resurgence quickly became a trend itself, even spreading outside the USA to countries like Australia (Wolf Creek) and France (High Tension). One of the most successful entries to emerge from this resurgence was Wrong Turn, a tale of mutant cannibals preying on young adults lost in the woods of West Virginia. Spawning five sequels and a newly released reboot, the Wrong Turn series has become one of modern horror’s biggest, longest running franchises.

Kicking off in 2003 with Wrong Turn, the series gets off to a solid if unexceptional start. It’s an entertaining, fast-paced slasher that benefits from beautiful woodland locations (Canada doubling for West Virginia) and great makeup effects courtesy of Stan Winston Studios (The Terminator, Jurassic Park).
Like many rural slasher films, it’s very derivative, taking much of its inspiration from the classics of the genre, namely The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. There’s the old gas station complete with creepy attendant; a cannibalistic inbred family; bone and body parts set decoration; a car crash that leaves the would-be victims stranded in the middle of nowhere; no phone signal. The list goes on.
The main issue with the first Wrong Turn, however, is that it’s a bit too slick of a production for its own good. Well-made but a bit soulless and by the numbers. It just doesn’t have that same down and dirty gonzo bizarreness or trashy shock value that permeates precursors like Mother’s Day or, indeed, contemporaries like Cabin Fever. It almost feels like one of the teen friendly Scream type slashers masquerading as a Texas Chain Saw clone.

The same cannot be said of direct to DVD sequel Wrong Turn 2: Dead End. This time gore and grossness are pushed to the limits as the cast and crew of a new reality TV show fall foul of the cannibal clan. It makes for an interesting dichotomy as the film simultaneously critiques the exploitative nature of reality TV, while wholeheartedly revelling in the excesses of exploitation horror.
Indeed, Wrong Turn 2’s main concern is how far it can push the grotesque over the top violence and sick humour. Images of mutant cannibals pleasuring themselves and a baby using a severed finger as a dummy makes clear the film’s intention to hearken back to the glory days of exploitation horror.

Aside from its exaggerated grotesqueness, the highlight here is hardcore punk legend Henry Rollins’ turn as a retired Marine who takes the law into his own hands. Like something straight out of an ‘80s action film, Rollins goes full on Rambo as he steals the show, blowing up cannibals with explosive arrows.

Once again, the shadow of Texas Chain Saw looms large with references to small town economic collapse and the closure of the local sawmill. Like the mechanization of the local slaughterhouse in Texas Chain Saw, the inference is that unemployment and the subsequent desertion of a once thriving community has led to the ensuing horror. With no jobs or income, the last remaining members of the community must kill to put food on the table.

Continuing in a similar vein to its predecessor, Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead wastes no time getting to the sex and violence in an opening sequence reminiscent of an ‘80s slasher as a group of teens are brutally slaughtered while fooling around in the woods.

The cannibal behind the slaughter, Three Finger, finally takes centre stage in this entry. Although he appeared in the first two films, this is where he truly becomes the series’ main villain. Like Leatherface and Jason before him, he is the iconic face of Wrong Turn.
This entry’s high concept escaped convicts vs cannibals premise ensures Three Finger has some competition in the villain department. It helps create a different dynamic as Three Finger isn’t just killing innocent teens anymore. In fact, some of the convicts are as bad, if not worse, than him. In a scene reminiscent of controversial Italian video nasty Cannibal Holocaust – another film that posits the question as to who the real villains are – one of them even kills Three Finger’s child and puts his head on a stake.
A refreshing change to the usual teens in peril set up, it’s entertaining, mindless fun seeing Three Finger pitted against a coachload of convicts. Creative kills and a big body count make this a solid conclusion to the original trilogy.

After the third entry, the Wrong Turn franchise followed in the footsteps of Star Wars with the 4th, 5th and 6th entries serving as prequels to the original trilogy. The franchise was then rebooted in 2021.
With their predilection for over the top gore, fast-paced action, and dark comedy, the Wrong Turn films are pure cheeseburger horror; basic and unrefined but incredibly enjoyable.