20 years of Wrong Turn : How a movie about murderous cannibals became an unkillable franchise

Wrong Turn

Everett Collection Eliza Dushku and Desmond Harrington in Wrong Turn (2003)

In the early '90s, screenwriter Alan B. McElroy was driving from his Ohio home to catch a plane in New York when he made a decision that would inspire one of Hollywood's most bizarrely resilient film franchises.

"My wife and I were taking a trip to Jamaica, and it was the middle of the night because we had a flight first thing in the morning, and we were in a snowstorm," McElroy tells EW. "We came across a traffic jam. Someone came to us and said, 'Oh, this could last for 14 hours. The truckers all go in the back of their cabs and go to sleep, and you could be stuck.' My wife and I thought, 'We're going to miss our flight. What are we going to do?' "

What the couple did was consult a map, head back in the direction they had come, and take a small side road which allowed them to bypass the traffic jam. "As we're doing that, in the dark, in a snowstorm, we're thinking, 'Is this a smart idea?' " McElroy recalls. "Anything could go wrong!"

This was the starting point for the horror film Wrong Turn. Released 20 years ago by 20th Century Fox on May 30, 2003, the movie follows a group of 20-somethings whose choice to take a side road on a roadtrip through the wilds of West Virginia places them in the path of three in-bred cannibals, One Eye, Saw Tooth, and Three Finger. Starring Eliza Dushku, Desmond Harrington, and Emmanuelle ChriquiWrong Turn proved to be a minor hit during its theatrical run, but would go on to enjoy a remarkable afterlife, inspiring six subsequent films, including a 2021 reboot starring Matthew Modine.

"It's so bizarre," says cast member Chriqui. "We had no idea this horror movie was going to have part 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. When I heard about the reboot, I was like, 'Suddenly, I feel old.' "

When Wrong feels so right

Wrong Turn

Everett Collection Emmanuelle Chriqui in 'Wrong Turn (2003)

McElroy got his big break writing 1988's Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and went on to co-write the screenplay for the 1997 comic book adaptation Spawn. Keen to develop original material, with his New York drive as inspiration, he began work on a short film, which the writer titled "Blur," about a bank robber whose car breaks down in the wilderness. "He comes across a cabin, and there's these three mountain men, and they were going to ambush him," he says of the concept. "I was going to shoot it in Ohio. I never got around to it."

In 2001, McElroy had a meeting with an executive at Original Film, the company founded by Fast & Furious franchise producer Neal H. Moritz. According to McElroy, the exec offered two pieces of advice. The first was to add four or five more characters so they could be killed off later. The second would become one the most significant contributions: "Give it a catchy title, like Wrong Turn," McElroy recalls. "He said, 'You'll sell it overnight.' So I did exactly that. I wrote it in three weeks."

Original Film passed on the project, but, in August 2001, Variety announced that Summit Entertainment and Newmarket Group had teamed to make Wrong Turn with four-time Oscar-winner Stan Winston aboard as a producer. Best known for his special effects makeup work on the Terminator and Jurassic Park franchises, Winston had directed and co-written the 1988 monster movie Pumpkinhead. "Stan loved horror films," says special effects creator and makeup artist Shane Mahan, who worked with Winston from the early '80s until his death in 2008. "Stan had done a bunch of horror films before he made bigger blockbusters. This was a proper horror film that we hadn't been able to do in a long time."

It was Winston's idea to have one of the three cannibals, Three Finger, be smaller than the other two. Originally, all three of the mountain men were huge. McElroy remembers, "Stan was the one who said, 'What if we create one that is smaller, but more agile and dangerous in that regard?' "

The project's clutch of producing partners was then joined by another company, the German-based Constantin Film, which provided much of the film's $10 million budget. At that point, McElroy says, "We were off to the races to make the movie."

Casting cannibals

Wrong Turn

Everett Collection 'Wrong Turn' (2003)

Wrong Turn was directed by Rob Schmidt, whose debut film, Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, played 2000's Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. "I had a little bit of heat," the filmmaker admits. Schmidt wanted to make a horror film and had taken a meeting about the next entry in the Hellraiser franchise, which was in the process of becoming a straight-to-video series under the stewardship of Dimension Films boss Bob Weinstein.

"I called my agent after the meeting and she said she wouldn't represent me anymore if I did the Hellraiser," Schmidt says with a laugh. "But she took more seriously that I liked the idea of doing horror films." The director was sent the script for Wrong Turn, which he liked. "I had meetings, I want to say, at three different companies to get approved for it," he remembers. "There were a lot of companies involved. It was like the United Nations to get casting approved. I don't know what the tiniest country on earth is, but that was me."

Schmidt cast Harrington, the future Dexter actor, as the film's male lead: a doctor named Chris. Angel star Dushku became the movie's final girl, Jessie. Her traveling companions were played by Kevin Zegers, Lindy Booth, Jeremy Sisto, and Chriqui. "It was really cool because the late Stan Winston was involved," says Chriqui. "He was the king of monsters and creatures. He was on set with us, which is really special looking back."

The director chose a 6-foot-plus actor named Ted Clark to play One Eye and a 7-foot-plus professional wrestler-turned-thespian called Garry Robbins to portray Saw Tooth. As Three Finger, Schmidt cast Julian Richings, whose many on-screen credits include the TV show Supernatural and this year's Beau Is Afraid. "He's a really interesting character actor," says Schmidt of Richings. "He was fearless about acting strange and it helped the movie enormously. He's the character that has the hysterical laugh."

Creating a 'mini wilderness'


Everett Collection Julian Richings in 'Wrong Turn' 2003

Schmidt filmed Wrong Turn hundreds of miles away from the Appalachian mountains in a park north of Toronto, where the director says he ended up green-screening out the skyscrapers behind the trees. "It was more convenient than going to the West Virginia wilderness," he says. "But it was a big park. There was poison ivy. It's a park that had cliffs in it."

"It was almost like a mini wilderness," Richings adds. "We weren't likely to get many people wandering through."

That was just as well, given the fearsome looks Winston had designed for Richings and his two cannibal-playing co-stars. Chriqui was genuinely freaked out when she first encountered the actors in makeup. "We saw them out in the woods, literally for the first time, and it was terrifying," she says. "One of them made these horrific squealing sounds and the whole thing was so scary. I was like, 'Wait, wait, wait, this is just a movie.' "

A scarier moment came in the film's second half, when Jessie (Dushku), Carly (Chriqui), and Chris (Harrington) seek safety in an observation tower. Their refuge is set on fire by the cannibals, forcing the trio jump into nearby trees. This sequence was shot in a studio where production designer Alicia Keywan built both the tower and a fake forest. While shooting the sequence, Chriqui wore a special rig designed to slow her fall, but she ended up dislocating her shoulder.

"I was up in this harness, basically falling out of the tree, holding a branch. It was that upward motion that dislocated my shoulder," the actress says. "It was all very dramatic and I had to go to the hospital. I think everybody was in shock. The good thing with a dislocated shoulder, though, is that, once you pop it back in, it's like instant relief. I went straight back to work the next day and just had to be super ginger with it."

The same sequence featured the killing of Chriqui's character, the most memorable demise in the film: Three Finger slams an axe through Carly's head and into the tree behind her. Viewers see a close-up of Chriqui's eye before the camera pans back and up, revealing that, while the top half of her head is still sitting on top of the murder weapon, the rest of her body is falling to the ground, crashing into branches on its way down.

Winston's colleague Shane Mahan recalls how the special effects team "put Emmanuelle in a fake tree with her head coming out, with an axe in her mouth, with a body suspended underneath that would be released and fall away." He says, "We designed the axe to be just big enough to not see the lower part of her face. It's an in-camera illusion, a magic trick really."

Reviews cut deep

Wrong Turn

Everett Collection 'Wrong Turn' (2003)

Wrong Turn was released at the start of the summer blockbuster season, and the reception, McElroy says, was disappointing. "It was meant to be released in the fall, closer to Halloween, and then it got rushed out at the end of May," he explains. "The funny thing is that the West Virginia tourist board administration denounced the film. Literally, the governor came out to say, 'This is not who we are!' I thought, Oh good, I've hit a nerve. Fantastic."

Many critics were equally unenthusiastic about Schmidt's film. Entertainment Weekly writer Scott Brown described Wrong Turn at time-of-release as "a blood-simple backwoods spatterfest that makes shameless use of the same old anti-rural moonshine Hollywood's been bootlegging for decades."

"The reviews at the time were not good," Schmidt acknowledges. "It definitely horrified me. Like, I'm speaking trauma."

Schmidt has more fond memories of visiting theaters after Wrong Turn opened and watching crowds experience the film, often with greater enthusiasm and "a lot of noise," he says. Speaking of noise, the reaction of the crowds to the character of Three Finger justified Schmidt's decision to leave Richings' now-recognizable cackle in the film, an element he says he was initially asked to "tone down."

"Kids in the theaters would imitate the laugh to scare the other people in the audience," Schmidt remembers. "And it was Julian. Julian did that."

"I didn't know that little story," Richings says. "But I still get people coming up to me and doing the Three Finger laugh."

No Dead End for this franchise

Henry Rollins in Wrong Turn 2: Dead End

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Henry Rollins in 'Wrong Turn 2: Dead End'

Wrong Turn earned $15 million in the U.S. and another $13 million around the world, just enough to open the possibility of a theatrical sequel. But the next movie in the Wrong Turn series, 2007's Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, was released straight to the booming home entertainment market. "I'll tell you why," says Schmidt, who now teaches filmmaking at Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University United International College. "Stan's contract and my contract paid pretty substantially for a sequel if it was a theatrical release." Instead, "Someone made a decision that cheaper DVD sequels was the way they would profit the most from the franchise," Schmidt continues. "So we did not do the sequel, the Stan Winston folks and me."

McElroy would also not be involved with the five Wrong Turn movies that followed. "They paid me off," he says. "My name is in there as 'characters created by,' but I had nothing to with 2 through 6."

Wrong Turn 2: Dead End was the directorial debut of Joe Lynch (Mayhem, the upcoming Suitable Flesh), who shot the film in Vancouver on a reduced budget of $4 million. Lynch cast punk rock legend Henry Rollins as the host of a reality competition show called The Apocalypse: Ultimate Survivalist, which attracts the attention of Three Finger, played here by actor-stuntman Jeff Scrutton.

Lynch planned on starting his film with one of the contestants being axed in half vertically in an attempt to top Schmidt's killing of Chriqui's character. "I needed to show the horror fans that we were not f---ing around," says the director. Lynch tried to convince Dushku to return and portray the film's first victim. "You had all these reality shows that were using [celebrities] like The Surreal Life and Celebrity Rehab," Lynch says. "My pitch was [for] Eliza Dushku to play herself. Her agents' concern was, 'Are you making fun of our client?' I'm like, 'Not at all. If anything, this is an homage to the work that she did in [the first] one.' "

In the end, Dushku declined to return to the franchise and the part was taken by American Idol contestant Kimberly Caldwell. "No matter what, I was chopping someone in half," Lynch says with glee. "I just had to find the right person to do it."

Released on DVD by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Wrong Turn 2 earned an impressive $9 million. "At the time, it was the highest-grossing direct-to-video film in Fox's history," Lynch points out. When the studio asked the director if he was interested in making another Wrong Turn film, Lynch pitched an idea he had cooked up with fellow filmmaker Dave Parker (The Dead Hate the Living!).

"It was almost like an homage to Assault on Precinct 13," says Lynch, referring to John Carpenter's 1976 action-thriller. He lays out the concept: "In the beginning of the film, Three Finger gets arrested and brought to this police precinct, and then the rest of the family come to get him. So it would have been a siege movie. They loved the idea, but they said, 'Great, we're going to give you half the money that you had before.' So I politely passed."

It's a cost-cutting pattern that would get progressively more severe as the franchise went on.

A few detours

Wrong Turn 5

'Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines'

The next three Wrong Turn films were made by Declan O'Brien, a former Disney executive who had broken into directing with 2008's Roger Corman-produced monster movie Cyclops and would return to the Corman fold for 2010's Sharktopus. O'Brien killed off Three Finger at the end of 2009's Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead and then set his next two franchise entries (2011's Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings, 2012's Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines) before the events of the original Wrong Turn.

O'Brien's trilogy of films was short on stars, although Wrong Turn 5 did feature Hellraiser actor Doug Bradley as the paterfamilias of the cannibal clan. Bradley leant proceedings a sinister edge, but his presence could not prevent the impression of a franchise in decline. "Declan was put in a really precarious position," Lynch says of the director, who passed away in 2022. "The more that they kept making them, the lower the budgets got, the smaller the production value got."

2014's Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort was shot in Bulgaria by local filmmaker Valeri Milev. The director had a reported budget of just $1 million, a reflection in part of the collapse in the DVD market in the years since the second movie. Milev attempted to pique the interest of viewers by adding a large amount of sex and nudity to the usual portion of gore, but the release of Wrong Turn 6 was barely noticed by anyone. The film's Rotten Tomatoes page has just one review, by Steve Barton of the horror website Dread Central, who dismissed the movie as "one hell of a wrong turn" for the series.

Wrong Turn 6 also had a sad real-life postscript. Shortly after the release of the film, the family of an Irish woman who had died the year before, sued Fox and other parties for including her image on a "missing" poster in the movie. Copies of the film were subsequently recalled and replaced by versions in which the image of the deceased woman was blurred out.

"I've not actually watched the other movies, but I've been aware of them," Richings says. "People have sent me clips, and it seems that, as the special effects have deteriorated, the violence has been upped. It's become a low-budget horror franchise, rather than the initial thing, which was Stan Winston trying to do a creature feature."

The road ahead

Wrong Turn 2021

Everett Collection 'Wrong Turn' (2021)

McElroy continued to enjoy a successful Hollywood career, with writing credits that include the 2006 John Cena action film The Marine and 2019's Fractured, a Netflix thriller starring Sam Worthington. While McElroy had no direct input on the slew of Wrong Turn sequels and prequels that followed the 2003 film, the writer did stay in touch with Robert Kulzer, an executive at Constantin. A few years ago, Kulzer got in contact with McElroy about bringing the franchise back. The question was, how do you update it?

McElroy wrote the script for a franchise reboot, which was titled Wrong Turn but entirely dumped the mythology of the series and its villains. The film pits a group of city folk against an ancient commune of Appalachian dwellers called the Foundation. The writer explains that the idea for the new film was to see the franchise's proper return to the big screen, but the plan, like so many, was derailed by the pandemic.

In the end, distribution company Saban Films gave the movie a limited theatrical release at the start of 2021 before the movie premiered on streaming services. If nothing else, this new Wrong Turn did at least attract the attention of some mainstream reviewers with Adam Nayman of The Ringer hailing the film as a "richer and more satisfying experience" than the first film.

McElroy has recently been writing on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and is developing a couple of projects with Blumhouse. He has hopes of continuing the Wrong Turn franchise with at least a couple more entries. "I had planned two more films, so there would be a trilogy, based around this idea of the Foundation and these characters," the writer says. "I'd love to finish it and see it all come out the way I wanted."

That, of course, would be good news for fans of the franchise, even if some of them understandably have trouble keeping close track of this seemingly unkillable series. If anything, maybe more sequels would help clear up a long-running misconception. "It makes me laugh, because a lot of people send me posts of my picture with a bow and arrow, and I'll realize that it's from Wrong Turn 3 or 4 or 5 or something," Richings says. "I don't like to write back and say, 'Actually, that's not me.' "

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