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Daaaamn if Hollywood isn't churning out some truly nasty horror films this year. Forget the sluggish start with FINAL DESTINATION 2, which offers loads of gore and nothing else. After the success of HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, we now have WRONG TURN to contend with. And with CABIN FEVER, MAY and (in the States at least) 28 DAYS LATER to contend with, this is looking like one gooey year at the movies.
A VERTICAL LIMIT meets FRIDAY THE 13TH opening notwithstanding, much of WRONG TURN has a traditional, nostalgic vibe to it. In various spots, the film feels as though it were made 10, 15 or even 20 years ago. This is a mixed blessing. For the first half hour, it's a curse.
Stop me if you've heard this one. Chris (Desmond Harrington - GHOST SHIP, THE HOLE, LOVE OBJECT) is a young doctor who is in a hurry to get to Raleigh, North Carolina. If only he could maneuver through those pesky West Virginia roads.
After a cryptic meeting with a filthy gas station attendant, he takes a short cut down a dirt road, only to slam into a parked car. The campers have broken down after their tires were ripped open by some barbed wire carelessly left in the road. But wait. Seconds after arriving on the scene, Chris and the rest of the group are told by the lone single gal, Jessie (Eliza Dushku - Faith from BUFFY and ANGEL) tells them the barbed wire wasn't left. It was set as a trap.
Paging Robert Frost. There's a reason why the road is less taken. Because it's filled with strong, mutated, in-bred mountain men who like nothing better than to carve up motorists for sport.
After stumbling on the mountain men's cabin, a rustic hut that would put Ed Gein's place to shame, the group is racing for civilization. Only problem is, they seem to be about fifty miles from anywhere and the prey doesn't know the terrain half as well as the predators do. It's a bunch of winding woodland paths filled with all sorts of dangers. This is, after all, West Virginia, a state that's apparently so backward, not even Virginia would take them.
I kid, of course, taking the stance of the film itself. The backwoods theme is constantly played here, recalling classic "peril in the woods" flicks: FRIDAY THE 13TH, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, even DELIVERANCE (although the mountain men are more reminiscent of the folks from THE HILLS HAVE EYES or TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE).
And yet through all of this, the film never winks. It never reminds you that it's only a movie (Remember the classic LAST HOUSE trailer? You have to keep repeating that mantra to yourself, because they aren't going to help you.).
As I said earlier, this has its ups and downs. Ordinarily I like films that respect where they come from. But the first act just feels soooo damn familiar. And let's face it, many of the old slasher flicks had the weakest set-ups imaginable. It's easy to say WRONG TURN is just a bit too predictable. You can pretty much guess who will survive and what will be left of them. Anyone want to place bets that the couple who smokes pot and screws around won't last very long?
But as I was enduring this endless procession of cliches, something truly amazing happened. The second the bloodied body of one of the group was unceremoniously plopped in front of Chris, and for just about all points throughout the rest of the film, a perverse smile crept across my face. This turns into a fun, grisly, down-home horror show. It's loads of fun and unlike FINAL DESTINATION 2, it manages to stage its gorier bits with a trace of panache and exquisite pacing.
Now, there's just about nothing in the world I hate as much as people who can't shut up during a movie. I would rather sit next to Saddam Hussein than most of these people. But as I sat scrunched down in my third row center theatre seat, it was hard to stifle my own response to the film. The rest of the crowd was much more vocal:
"What the f-?"
"Oh he didn?t-"
"Get out of there!"
"Grab the gun!"
Okay, so the audience participation wasn't the most poetic in the world. As theatrical exclamations go, it was more Neil LaBute than Neil Simon. But for once, I didn't mind. I myself let out a prolonged "ouch" or two. I had avoided seeing WRONG TURN in it's first week because I thought the film screamed "wait for video." It doesn't. In fact, it's one of those rare films where a theatrical experience can only help. The midnight showings probably won't happen anytime soon, but they would be welcome for a film like this.
Harrington compensates for his animated performance in GHOST SHIP by barely moving a facial muscle throughout the whole film. Many times he seemed to be channeling actor Liev Schreiber but without reaching that level of coolness. Eliza Dushku continues to make up for the god-awful SOUL SURVIVORS, but she has yet to get that breakout film role she deserves. Don't feel bad Eliza. So far, of the BUFFY crew, only Amber Benson and Alyson Hannigan have really come into their own on the big screen (Okay, Bianca Lawson as well, but since her Kendra performance was so bad, I wasn't counting it.)
Jeremy Sisto (CLUELESS, MAY) is quite frankly, a pain here. I don't blame him, I blame his character. He's there to supply some witty but intellectual comic relief that really never pays off. Playing his fianc�e, Emmanuelle Chriqui (RICKY 6, THE CROW: WICKED PRAYER) is a character that seems purposely designed to infuriate. She's the character that does everything the audience doesn't want her to do. Several times, I felt the urge to reach right through the screen and slap her silly. So much for the line between fantasy and reality.
But in truth, no one is really required to act much. That's not a slam, it's just not that kind of movie. The characters are not well defined, and for once, I'm actually thankful. The film plays much better having Chris get thrown in with this group of complete strangers and fighting for survival. Even one dramatic scene where one of the characters is told not to blame themselves for their friends getting murdered feels forced. More than anything, WRONG TURN is a visceral experience. A film that's all momentum and emotion.
I actually spent a good number of years living in the woods, although not as far out as the locales here. This is ironic since I absolutely abhor nature. Give me a city with phallic skyscrapers and obnoxious shopping malls any day. You can take your Thoreau and shove it up your Walden Pond. True to form, I don't think I ever ventured into the woods right on the edge of my property more than twice. Too damn spooky. The locals loved it. Through the woods about a quarter mile was a cliff. Across from that cliff, in the middle of the St. Croix River, was a few small islands. That and an old tourist trap that used to be used by loggers in the 19th century were notorious for the drinking parties. I could hear the "yeehaws" and "yahoos" echoing through the woods like some unearthly spectre out of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD. Far from adding to the terror, it actually alleviated it. Nothing bad in the woods, just some drunken louts on the other side wearing out yet another copy of THE EAGLES' GREATEST HITS.
WRONG TURN re-instates that menace. The "yahoos" and "yeehaws" here are not innocent party anthems, but bloodthirsty war cries. Thanks to director Rob Schmidt (CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN SUBURBIA), the family here becomes a new unholy brood to add your horror family portrait. And awfully effective too, as this film is quite a nasty spookfest. The people have to endure everything from sharp objects, rugged terrain, feral mountain folk and watching their friends get carved up like sides of beef.
It's got more than a few flaws, but overcomes them just fine, delivering some grotesque entertainment. Get past the first rugged patch of road and WRONG TURN becomes a worthwhile destination. However, I can assure you, I am never going to West Virginia again.