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Shriekfest 2010: “Wrong Turn” (2003)

The month of the Great Pumpkin is upon us, and this year I plan to do it up proper: by watching a horror film every night Oct. 1-31. Expect as many reviews as these fingers can eke out, and let the shudders (of fright and of disgust) begin.

People who don’t believe in signs would do well to watch more horror films, which hammer down — with forceful, bloody thwacks — the importance of knowing your surroundings. That road that forks into two paths, one clean and flora-dotted and the other sporting a crude sign scrawled on broken planks? It’s not there for toots and chuckles. The dirty feller sporting the overalls and one sad, lonely snaggletooth? President of the Hillbilly Welcome Wagon he ain’t. And that ring of barbed wire that blew out your front tire? An inhospitable squirrel didn’t put it there.

These scenes describe Rob Schmidt’s “Wrong Turn.” That’s a brain duster, right? They could describe any one of hundreds of horror films where comely, hard-bodied city slickers trek out into untamed wilderness (the mountains are popular with this crowd, particularly if they’re in the Deep South) for “fun in nature.” This concept has been done so often it’s become a formula — hardly a bad thing, since a formula becomes a formula by working. The problem with a workable formula is that, after years and years, it gets to be ho-hum without a few tweaks here, a little ingenuity there. “Wrong Turn” is devoid of such tweaks. It’s an occasionally gripping, mostly average rehash of every trick found in the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Making a Horror Film

The opening scenes announce as much, providing a fun way to pass the time during the duller moments of “Wrong Turn.” Grab a pen and prepare to start checking boxes. Erstwhile hero Chris (Desmond Harrington, either a bored actor or a boring one) speeds down a West Virginia highway on his way to an interview in Raleigh. He’s stopped by a traffic jam and decides to take a back road. (Note: This is horror code for “that’s a really terrible idea, if you live to regret it.”) Distracted, he slams his car — a real beaut, and about the only victim you’ll truly miss — into an SUV filled with some friends on a weekend jaunt: Carly (Emmanuelle Criqui) and fiancée Scott (Jeremy Sisto, stealing the few good lines), stoner couple Evan (Kevin Zegers) and Francine (Lindy Booth) and the newly dumped Jessie (Eliza Dushku). As it happens, the SUV’s got a flat caused by some mysterious barbed wire. Only Jesse’s got the brains to realize it was planted. For the rest, prepare for autopilot — one group goes for help, the other stays behind and both get hunted by mountain dwellers who resemble the lovechild of Gollum and Larry the Cable Guy.

It’s pointless to add more details. Viewers under heavy sedation could anticipate what moves the characters make. Start to finish, there’s not a surprise to be found, so quit hoping. In fact, start the film hopeless and proceed accordingly. But there are a few genuinely tense moments in “Wrong Turn,” including a scene of Harrington and Dushku trapped under a bed with lumpy-headed mountainman slumbering above. A few points could be awarded for set design; it’s sufficiently eerie and grimy enough to cause some unease. There are a few stabs at humor, and all of them come from Sisto, the only actor determined to have some fun with the part. When Carly, for example, insists “I need to pee,” Scott’s response is unexpectedly clever: “I need to remind you of a little movie called ‘Deliverance.'” Oh, if only the rest of the script was that snarky, or the rest of the actors the least bit interested in cutting loose. Dushku revives her tough girl persona and gets in a few wisecracks, but Harrington is poor choice of partner in a verbal sparring match. Even when he’s running for his life, he looks thoroughly disinterested.

The crazed mountain-dwellers, though? Why, this is a humdinger of a feast for them, now. They get to grunt and snort and hack apart the Hot Dead People with abandon. In terms of make-up they aren’t particularly frightening — unless you count the overalls. Which brings me to the worst flaw of all in “Wrong Turn”: the assumption that all Southerners wear overalls. Oh well. I suppose it’s something of a gift that they aren’t show eating dirt as an appetizer.

Grade: C-