Not too long ago, a direct to video release was a sign of mediocrity. Especially if it was a sequel to a theatrical film. This meant it was a lower budget, featured few or none of the original actors, and suffered from a sense of laziness. For example of all three, watch Darkman II. Or better yet, don’t.
But in the past few years, that has changed. With opening weekend numbers being so important, studios are sending more of their films straight to DVD, rather than risk the extra cost of putting it in theaters and watching it get clobbered by the likes of Harry Potter or Jack Sparrow. And with a horror movie, it’s even MORE a lucrative proposal, as the MPAA won’t shred it to pieces in order to prevent the fans from seeing something so dreadful as blood splatter or maybe an intestine or two. Because for whatever reason, the MPAA still hasn’t figured out that watching realistic violence (Passion of the Christ) is more far more disturbing than over the top, ‘fun’ splatter you see in films like Evil Dead 2 and Feast.
Well now you can add Wrong Turn 2: Dead End to that list. As it’s only available unrated, one may never know what it would have looked like in theatrical, R rated form, and frankly I don’t think anyone would want to. As it stands, director Joe Lynch and co. have crafted a well above-average sequel that surpasses all expectations one might have.
Picking up shortly after the first film (if you recall, one of the mutants survived, the charmingly named Three Finger), a new group of unsuspecting city folk have found their way into the West Virginia back country that we all know is populated by inbred mutants (a fact re-enforced by the film itself). Henry Rollins plays Capt Dale Murphy, a retired Marine who is now hosting a new reality show titled “Apocalypse”. Six strangers are assembled, among them a vegan (Erika Leerhsen), a skateboarder named Jonesy (Steve Braun), a college football star (Texas Battle), an army chick (Daniella Alonso), and Crystal Lowe as, well, a slut. Throw in a few camera techs and the show’s producer (Aleksa Palladino), and let the fun begin. As they walk around the forest searching for food in the reality show’s first “challenge”, the mutants (there are six by my count) begin doing what they do best: killing everyone in gloriously over the top, pitch black humorous fashion.
Being a splatter movie, Lynch and writers Al Septien and Turi Meyer know perfectly well what fans want. It’s evident on every level of the filmmaking process: these guys aren’t just studio hired goons looking to make a buck; they are fans themselves. And so while they know people want to see a girl get vertically cut in half, or disemboweled, they also know that simply throwing blood around for 90 straight minutes will get tiresome. As fun as Feast was, it got a bit tiresome as it went on, and that’s because they more or less blew their wad too early. That’s not the case here. The bloody goods are delivered at a near perfect pace from start to finish, with just the right amount of characterization and thematic payoff (vegan viewers may find themselves queasy) in between to make you care about the characters, and more importantly, make you aware that the filmmakers do too. It’s a hard balance to strike, but they pull it off almost flawlessly. You won’t get bored, but you won’t get worn out either.
Fun is the keyword here. While the original had some occasional touches of humor, the sequel keeps you smiling throughout. Throwaway lines like “You were in the top seven!’ in reference to ex-American Idol contestant Kimberly Caldwell (playing herself) and Rollins getting upset about another character stereotyping West Virginians as redneck lovers of pig are sprinkled throughout, and again, aren’t overused to the point of the film being a comedy. Horror comes first, but that doesn’t mean some fun can’t be had.
And the characters are less dour than they were in the original (where only Jeremy Sisto seemed to be having any fun). Acting wise, most of the actors are playing the same types they have before, but that’s not a problem. What’s important is that there isn’t a weak spot among them (though the Jonesy character is possibly more annoying than he’s supposed to be), and since the ensemble scenes are evenly balanced, you won’t be able to pick the survivors right off the bat. Rollins has the tough guy thing down to a science, and as he slowly turns Rambo you’ll be cheering him on every step of the way. Lowe basically plays the same bimbo she played in Final Destination and Black Xmas, and again displays two of her key assets. She’s hot enough, but I’d like to see her do something a little different next time. Leerhsen, however, continues to impress. I didn’t even recognize her at first. There’s a reason she’s worked with people like Woody Allen: the girl’s got chops far beyond what is required for this type of film. But again, that just speaks more about the effort that went into it.
A big part of what makes the film work is the makeup by Bill Terezakis and his crew. While the original had two great kills (the arrow through the eye and the axe through the mouth), the rest was pretty straight forward. Not the case here. No one dies via a simple stabbing or an arrow in the back, the deaths are ALL memorable and more importantly, 99% practical. I counted only 1 CG enhanced kill in the film (and it’s such a shocker it’s automatically forgiven). The mutant makeups are better than they were in the first film, and it’s easy to tell which one is which. The splatter is delightfully and admirably over the top, but not cartoonishly so (with the exception of one scene, a pool of blood surrounding one character’s head from a neck wound is about 5x as big as it should be). In addition, not only are the kills themselves inventive, but Lynch and director of photography Robin Loewen stage them all in equally impressive fashion.
Lynch has a heavy music video background, but luckily that doesn’t mean the film is filled to the brim with avid farts and over/under cranked footage. The shooting is very active and aggressive (there’s actually maybe a few too many whip pans) but never once was I confused as to what was going on or where characters were in relation to each other, something other modern horror directors can’t even manage on their third or fourth film. And watching him on the behind the scenes footage just confirms it: the guy having a blast, getting paid to do what he’d probably do for free, and every ounce of that energy has obviously spread to the cast and crew.
In short, what could have been a cheap and lazy cash-in turned out to be one of the year’s better genre offerings. FOX may have gotten their priorities mixed when they unleashed Hills Have Eyes 2 into theaters instead of this, but let that be their problem, not yours. Whether you liked the original (and I did, a lot) or not, you won’t be disappointed with this one if you’re a fan of the splatter/survival genre. If this movie came out in 1983, it would be the one all the jaded smartasses on the messageboards would name-check when they point out how no one can make a good horror flick anymore. A few more like Wrong Turn 2 and 2007 will possibly be salvaged after all.
Check out more of BC’s reviews at Horror Movie A Day!