Wrong Turn has had an interesting journey, from the first film with Eliza Dushku, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Jeremy Sisto, Kevin Zegers, and Lindy Booth as the ill-fated group who have taken a wrong turn and ended up in the backwoods of nowhere – as well as Desmond Harrington. This installment is the only one of the series to have been released in theaters until the most recent reboot, Wrong Turn (2021), which utterly abandoned the concepts and characters from five sequels. The thing is, in terms of quality, horror films are rarely inconvenienced by being a direct-to-DVD film or, as would be the case today, direct-to-streaming. Horror films, as a rule, are relatively inexpensive and thus are capable of reaping greater rewards when they’re a hit.
So, why is it that the Wrong Turn franchise managed to turn in admittedly alright films that just… aren’t great films? That has more to do with horror films, slasher films, and creature features identifying the wrong aspects of what makes a film successful. Bear in mind, Wrong Turn (2003) focused on the cast of attractive, college-esque characters being caught in a terrifying situation and meeting a gruesome end, and the sequels followed suit. Yet, what made the first film better than most of its sequels was that the characters, and the emotional stakes tied to them, were greater than the sequels that followed. Comparing the casts between the very first installment and the most recent reboot is like oil to water. Sure, they are both liquids, but their properties are very different, just as their approach to the genre.
Each group introduced in Wrong Turn’s 2 to 6 received less and less attention than that initial group, despite having a similar run time. The first sequel took things in a different direction, focusing on a reality television show set in the same area, the next sequel followed a prison transport that was derailed at the same time Alex Mills (Janet Montgomery) outlives her friend’s being slaughtered, and then the next three films all act as prequels (thus, everybody is expected to die, and does). Individually, their quality is inconsistent, but each film has its high points, and they all definitely have their low points – like all films do, really. The answer lies in why and how the films were made.
Capitalizing off of the surprise success of the initial installment. And so, they were made without having initially been intended and then given a lower budget, a different filming location, and sent off to fill an overly bloated direct-to-DVD market. Some people were hard pressed to know that the films even existed, let alone that there are now seven films in total. Direct-to-DVD films have a bad rap, compared to the advent of direct-to-streaming films which are just as likely to vary in quality, but because they have Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, or some other streaming service behind them, they also come with higher budgets, bigger stars, and more lucrative contracts.
But, like I mentioned previously, horror films cost less and so they can make back many times their budget without much effort on their part. Each film had to have made back at least that and more, to elicit sequel after sequel until the theatrical release of Wrong Turn (2021) made more money than its originator. Because those sequels were able to play around with horror conventions, they settled on the villains rather than the protagonists. This is also the reason that 4 through 6 were set as prequels rather than straight sequels, they could kill off every character and it wouldn’t impact the existence of the first three films.
Except, how many times are audiences willing to sit back and watch every character die in an increasingly gruesome manner? Slasher films are known for their final girls, but after a certain point, the Wrong Turn film subverted even that – the second film infamously set up one character to be the final girl, only to kill the character partway through the film and settle on the decidedly more action-oriented Nina. The fifth film followed suit in setting up one character as the final girl, only to kill her first and position another (equally doomed) final girl.
Overall, they follow a similar formula – a group of young, attractive collegiates get lost somewhere and happen upon the cannibalistic murderers. Chaos, death, and terror ensue. Wash, rinse, repeat. Perhaps that was why they put a twist on each successive film – who was involved (college kids in the first film, a reality tv crew in the second, inmates and college kids in the third, and then disposable college students for the remainder of its initial run). Which character survived and how many survived changed, too, until it came down to zero by the fourth film, which began the use of the cruel twist ending that has become popular in horror films as of late.
When your formula becomes expected, changing it up is the only thing that can be done. Change it too much, and people begin to expect it to go a certain way after too long – it seems every direct-to-DVD slasher film ended with a cruel twist that killed the last heroes standing. By the time the franchise returned with its most recent installment, the reboot era was in full swing, and so a new change was needed in order to freshen up the franchise. Cults were in vogue for a while, so it borrowed that aspect and dropped the cannibalism in order to tell a grittier story. Audiences reacted well, and the film turned into the most financially lucrative one in the entire series.
It also happens to be the only one completely unconnected to the very first film. That’s probably for the best, though.